Achieving More by Stressing Less: Taming Our Inner Hyper-Achiever

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

We all know someone who's achieved enviable external success, seemingly on top of the world. In my experience, many of these people are highly talented people who are highly skilled at navigating difficulty in pursuit of reaching their highest aspirations. Their drive and relentless focus on achieving their full potential can inspire awe and admiration. But, when you scratch beneath the surface, you might find a different picture.

Despite their successes, many of the same people admit privately to feeling an undercurrent of emptiness or stress despite their impressive achievements. We can mistakenly trick ourselves into believing that we’re worthy as long as we’re successful and others think well of us (hello social media!). In the process, we shy away from intimacy and vulnerability because closeness with others might reveal that we are not as perfect as the image we portray. When driven primarily from a sense of having to achieve results, we find that our peace and happiness are fleeting.  A moment’s celebration often quickly gives way to a sense of pressure to figure out what result to chase next.

What's really going on here?

While pursuing the results we truly want in life is healthy, if we overplay our goal-orientation and capacity for growing ourselves and others, we can find ourselves at the mercy of our inner “hyper-achiever”. It tries to convince us that life is about achieving and producing results, but the truth is that constant pursuit of achievement and perfection can lead to an unsustainable workaholic lifestyle, causing us to lose touch with our deeper feelings and our ability to connect deeply with others.

I coached a leader who found herself in this predicament. “But I need this drive. It’s what’s made it possible to achieve so much in my career,” she said. “And how much happiness has this drive created for you,” I asked. “How much happiness has it created in the relationships you have with the people you care most about in your life?” An expression of shock came over her face. When I asked her what was behind the expression, she explained, her voice cracking with emotion, that she realized in that moment that the persistent conflict with the same people she cared about most stemmed from her negatively judging them for not achieving success at the same standards she held herself. This became a pivotal realization for positive change in her personal and professional development.

So, how can we manage these tendencies to maintain our mental and emotional wellbeing?

First, it's crucial to identify and label our thought patterns when we notice them. Instead of telling ourselves, "I am not working hard enough" or “I’ve got to find a way to beat my sales target this quarter” we can reframe it as "I'm having a thought that I'm not working hard enough" or “there’s my inner hyper-achiever telling me what he thinks I have to do”. This shift creates space for us to make a conscious, deliberate choice about how we think, feel and act.

Second, make an honest assessment of the standards to which we hold ourselves. Are they based on what truly matters to us or are they standards imposed on us by society. We give away our own power when our happiness or sense of self-worth is anchored to others' standards –  or when we depend too much on others' attention, acceptance, and validation. Recognizing this can help illuminate the root cause of our frustrations and help us regain our sense of agency. By developing our own standards and reframing the inner narrative, we can regain our sense of self.

And finally, it’s helpful to recognize that our inner hyper-achiever is constantly hungry for more achievement, constantly whispering that our worth is tied to our success. Over time, this can become stressful, which can ironically lead to achieving less. It's similar to a pro sports athlete who, overwhelmed by the pressure of a critical game-winning shot, misses an otherwise easy shot. The self-imposed pressure to work harder, in essence, sabotages performance.

Rather than feeding this stress-inducing pressure to success, it's essential to confront the belief that constant pushing and 100% effort are the only paths to achievement. If you want to perform at your highest possible level, paradoxically, you need to learn to relax and savor every step of your journey. When inevitable mistakes or failures occur, respond with empathy and understanding towards yourself. (Side note: for a deep dive on this topic, check out this Humans At Work podcast episode on the techniques baseball Hall of Famers, All-Star athletes, Olympians and CEOs use to perform at their best when the pressure is on and the stakes are high.)

Transform your big goals into an enjoyable game, a journey you are excited to undertake rather than a high-stakes competition you have to win. This approach will not only reduce your stress but also increase your potential for achievement. Remember, the goal is not just to reach your destination, but also to enjoy the journey.

Interested in learning more? Our High Performance Wellbeing Program helps you manage your mindset to achieve sustainable high work performance - with less stress, higher motivation and better relationships - in just 8 weeks.