The myth of the high achiever

I could probably write six different books on the “high achiever myth” — and maybe someday I shall! — but first I need to kind of define what exactly it means.

The high achiever myth, to me, is about how we have a very skewed notion of what success looks like. This varies by person and by gender — doesn’t everything? — but in general, people in America define success in material, quantity-driven terms. Unfortunately, this often applies to work too. So that means that, in order to be seen as a high achiever, you need to:

  • Make a bunch of money
  • Constantly tell people how busy, important, and slammed you are
  • Get fat bonuses on the regular
  • Consistently repeat to people how relevant and necessary you are, even if no one understands what you could possibly do all day

I knock stuff about the workforce on this blog all the time. (I will say that I also propose solutions to these things.) People give me shit constantly, screeching at me that “you’re bitter” or “you don’t understand X or Y.” In some ways, these arguments are correct. But in other ways, we all go through this. We all work within this high achiever myth. We gotta produce — even if we’re not entirely sure what we’re producing or why. The targets must be locked, and then must be hit. We need more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, cooler Instagram pics on vacation, a hotter spouse, whatever it is. And this is all supposed to come with more, more, more — as opposed to finding any true balance around what you do (your job) and who you are (your soul).

The easiest example right now is the Presidential election. Many people think Donald Trump is a high achiever. I send an email every Thursday. Two weeks ago, I mentioned the election; I knew it would catch me some unsubscribes, and it did — 13 in total, my highest-ever. One of those 13 was a sociology professor. You’d assume a sociology professor might be pretty liberal, but naw. He loved Trump. When he gets off my list, he bellows at me that Trump is a “true business winner” and a “brand builder” who will, obviously, MAGA.

You know, maybe Trump is a high achiever. №1 TV show. №1 book. Now he’s the President. And there are a lot of middle managers in the upper Midwest who probably told their wives “no chance I’ll vote for him!” and then did — and all because he’s a high achiever, supposedly. It kinda drowns out the other stuff — the bad, scary stuff — for some people. This is where the high achiever myth becomes dangerous.

The high achiever myth: A quick personal story

Actually, let’s do two stories.

I once heard a manager say to a subordinate, and I quote: “You better hit those fucking targets, or I’ll put you through a fucking wall.” That’s an actual quote. Think about it for a second. “Those targets” imply some low-priority goal that might — just maybe — be tied to incremental revenue. But if those targets are not hit, this direct report will be “put through a fucking wall.” Do you understand how this is essentially psychotic? And yet, many managers believe this is the path to being a high achiever. Demand demand demand, the theory goes. Accountability accountability accountability.

Second story: I was once in Vegas for work. This bigwig comes up to me and it’s about 10pm. We’re at a party. He tells me, without me even asking him anything, “When this ends, I gotta go back to the room and work until 4am.” I almost said to his face: “I don’t give two fucking shits.” I couldn’t, of course. He was a bigwig and I was a peon. But here’s the deal: all major research for the past few decades says 55 hours/week is a hard ceiling on productivity. That’s still 11 hours/day on a five-day work week. How we view the work week nowadays is a joke, but you can get a lot done in 11 hours/day if you focus right. (52–17 ratio, baby!) Do not come at me about how you did 88 last week. Get off the cross. If you did 88, it just means you have absolutely no idea how to be effective at what you do. It does not mean you are relevant, important, essential, a high achiever, a straight shooter with upper management written all over him, etc. It means you’re ineffectual at your job.

And now, this.

The high achiever and work-life balance

When you chase this high achiever myth, the №1 thing you lose is work-life balance. I realize most people view work-life balance as a buzzword now, but it’s actually a strategic advantage if you do it right. Most companies, of course, do not. Why is this? The high achiever myth.

In short, we deify the workaholic. Work is virtue and by God, you are virtuous. Making that money. Taking down those targets. Showing the world you’re a boss.

But when you do that and think that way, you sacrifice other things. Here’s a former head of Bain and eBay discussing just that:

He urged students not to look at their careers and relationships as zero-sum equations: You don’t have to choose between children and a career, one partner’s job over the other’s, advancement over personal health. Instead, look at life as a positive-sum equation. Try to get as much out of it as possible, and look for creative solutions along the way.

That whole article is good. Here’s another solid quote:

“That community was an investment in ourselves,” Donahoe says. “If you want to be world-class, you have to invest in yourself. And all this stuff that some people think is kind of fuzzy, I don’t view it as fuzzy. I view it as the only way you can perform at the highest levels.”

Onto the next point.

What is being a high achiever, really?

To many men who pride themselves on being “business guys” or “road warriors,” it’s the stuff I listed above. But if you choose to get married or have kids or have friends within all that, you need to dedicate time to them. You also need to dedicate time to yourself. If you want to be world-class, you have to invest in yourself. But as this dude from Bain and eBay knows, many people think that’s fuzzy.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

I’d say “soft skills.” This is another complex myth of work and business. Stuff like “communicating well” is a soft skill to many — i.e. it doesn’t make you money directly. As a direct result of that perception, communication at most workplaces is a tire fire. This leads to bad project planning and burnout (88 hours/week!). It all starts with some supposed “high achiever” believing he doesn’t have time to communicate better. Rather, he’s going to tell someone he’ll put them through a fucking wall.

Important to understand: to many people, work is a quest for relevance and to not be seen as incompetent. At that intersection, this high achiever deal becomes very complex. Most of our actions, psychologically, are never about doing quality work. They’re about underscoring our worth and necessity. If you think the upper Midwest isn’t terrified about jobs being automated by software, you’re wrong. And if you think that didn’t play into MAGA and DT winning, I got a bridge I can sell you.

Being a high achiever in reality is about balancing the aspects of your life you value. Unfortunately, we often put it solely into work/fiscal terms.

How to be a high achiever

Understand what you care about and prioritize it. Seek the Four-Way Win. Stop pounding your chest about the other bullshit. It doesn’t really matter as much as you think it does anyway.

There is an increasing wage gap in the U.S., yes. And it’s hard for young people to save money. But look, in general it’s not hard to make money or get a good salary if you believe in the high achiever myth. You hit targets. Please the brass. Heads down, no fuss. You will, eventually, get there.

But does that actually make you a high achiever? Or does it just make you someone good at following work process and playing politics?

What else might you add on this high achiever concept?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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