How to Overcome the Compulsion to “Get Ahead”

Why the operating system you learned as a "high-achiever" is burning you out

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high-achiever burnout

For me it started with the “honors track.” The pressure to succeed never came from my parents – in fact, every time I was offered the option of testing for GATE, signing up for my first set of honors classes, or trying out for the varsity sport, my mom called around to check if it was even the right thing to do. She didn’t want me to lose my childhood. She just wanted me to be a happy kid.

But it was a defining moment – there was a fork in the proverbial train tracks at age eleven, and you could stay the course with everyone else, or you could be special, take the “fast-track,” and get ahead.

Get ahead. It’s what I’d been doing my entire life, only to wake up one day and realize the haunting reality: there was no place to ever actually arrive.

If you think about it, “ahead” is an adverb, not a noun. It’s not a place so much as a condition of being – an approach to the way we do life. It’s our personal propensity to “push through,” “power through,” “pay our dues,” and get through everything on our to-do list before we can relax. Yet because by its very definition “ahead” is always, well, ahead, our idea that there will ever be a point at which we feel like we can slow down or stop simply goes against rational thought.

But alas, whether it was the college track, sports track, promotion track, or startup track, many of us have been conditioned into this mindset. It’s rewarded by good grades, good schools, good jobs, and early promotions. And thus we quickly become products of positive reinforcement.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not to say that all of these things are inherently bad. But like all patterns, they can end up running our lives or become incredibly dysfunctional when not kept in check.

Here are just a few of the ways when “getting ahead” (or for that matter, even “keeping up”) can actually hurt us more than it helps:

1. When getting ahead becomes our primary operating system.

My clients often hear me say – how you do one thing, is often how you do everything. When you’re conditioned to “get ahead” in other areas of your life, you also become the type of person who has to carry all 19 bags of groceries in one trip. Who frees up 30 minutes and, instead of taking a break, immediately thinks what else can I squeeze in? Who is always in a rush. We become not just human doings, but never-ending human to-do lists. It’s no wonder we’re always stressed out and never feel like we have enough time! If you’ve ever had the experience of finally crossing “enough” off your to-do list only to have something else pop up, perhaps it’s time to shift your approach.

2. When pursuing “ahead” means there has to be a “behind.”

I hear it every day in my clients who compare themselves to everyone else at 35, 45, 65…or who are afraid to try something new out of fear of “falling behind.” Where did we get these subjective measuring sticks? Who divided the world into these 2 meaningless parts now called ahead and behind? It’s a false dichotomy, but we so often allow to run our lives.

3. When we go too fast, we miss the scenery.

To me this is actually one of the most significant tragedies of the getting ahead mindset. I imagine looking out the window of a fast train, and life just whirring by. You keep going and going, perhaps checking off to-do after to-do, or racking up accomplishment after accomplishment, but eventually you get to the end only to realize you never really slowed down enough to enjoy any of it.

4. When we go too fast, we miss where we’re going at all.

Yes this is for you who climbed a particular ladder for 15 years only to at some point realize you never took the time to question if it was the right one. When you take the fast-track, sometimes you go too fast to tell if you’re even going the right direction at all.

Or, as Eddie Cantor so eloquently sums it up: “Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you’re going and why.”

So the next time you catch yourself saying “I’ll [have more time / be less stressed / spend more time with my partner / finally use my PTO / do something for myself] when…,” take a step back and ask yourself what you can do to show up in the way you want now.

After all, as a good friend recently reminded me – everywhere you go, there you are. If you can’t slow down and live life in the way you want to now, can you really expect yourself to do it any differently when you finally never get to “then”?

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