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At my lowest point, I fantasized about being in a car accident.
I wasn’t looking for a fiery death, and I certainly didn’t want to cause a crash, but I did fantasize about an accident just bad enough to put me in a coma for a week or so.
I’d be hospitalized, cared for, and left to enjoy a deep, blissful sleep.
At the time, I was an insomniac. Every night, I tried to will myself to sleep as my thoughts churned away: “You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not good enough. People are going to notice you don’t know what you’re doing!” Being in a coma would give me permission to take a break.
As an achiever, however, slowing down was unthinkable. I was nothing without my accomplishments.
Not so ironically, a fender bender (my fault) led to a doctor’s visit, which led to a prescription for anxiety medications. I started sleeping again, and I doubled down on striving, sure that hitting financial targets would put everything right and allow me to get off the drugs.
I didn’t want to be propped up by anything other than my own strength, but I didn’t yet understand what kind of strength it would take.
Now I know: I was suffering from a sickness called “achiever fever.”
Perhaps you’ve experienced its symptoms:
>> The constant need to prove yourself
>> The need to feel like you have everything under control
>> Persistent self-criticism
>> Needing to feel productive and terrified of wasting time
>> The fear that you won’t live up to your potential
>> Habitual worry
>> Frequently comparing yourself with others
>> Medicating these feelings with food, alcohol, internet, exercise, work, sleep, TV, shopping, etc.
Achiever fever is a state of mind wherein we believe that our next goal or achievement will bring us closer to peace and joy. Achievements bring moments of elation, and so we want more of them; eventually we start to crave them. We become dependent on achievement as a measure of our self-worth.
Ultimately we end up on an achievement treadmill, steadily increasing the speed and incline, hurrying and worrying in a state of urgency, watching our competitors in the mirror.
Achiever fever is a powerful delusion. It grips you tightly until you take it upon yourself to break through it. And the only way to break through is first to become aware that you are feverish.
I’m the founder and CEO of a market research firm, and when I recognized that my self-doubt and fear could jeopardize the growth of the company, that was the spur to finally get help.
I worked intensively for a year with my climbing coach (who is also a triple black belt in Kung Fu), who sent me down the path of deep introspection and insight. As my senses opened up, I was drawn to spiritual memoirs, journaling, meditation, self-inquiry, and Buddhism. Ultimately I wrote a book about my journey.
Change, I learned, is not a process of addition, it is a process of subtraction. As the fog started to clear, my sun brightened.
Here are four things I have learned that help keep the fever at bay:
- We all have an inner narrator, which cognitive psychologists call the left-brain interpreter. This voice can get nasty, telling us that we’re not good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough. I used to assume this was simply the voice of reality, and it never occurred to me to question it. Question it. Get to know your inner critic by flushing it out in the open. Write down what it says and ask yourself, “Is that true?” This voice is the inner bully, and a bully loses power once it’s ignored.
- Joy, peace, and happiness are only available in the present moment, and the only way we can experience these states is by being present. With one eye on their future goals, achievers have a difficult time being present, and achieving can put us in a state of urgency which brings fear into our lives. Reframe achievement as merely a moment, alongside all the other moments in your life, and try to experience and respect each moment as it unfolds. Often, what we remember isn’t the actual achievement, it is the learning, the ups and downs, along the way.
- Meditation is an excellent way to practice being present. It can bring us the stillness in which we can hear our inner self—the one who gets drowned out by the inner critic, which is where wisdom lies. As John Kabat-Zinn says, meditation is the only activity that is not a doing, it is a being. As soon as we try to achieve in meditation, we’ve defeated its purpose. It may feel unproductive to a work-hard/play-hard achiever, but I find it to be key to staying out of the grip of achiever fever.
- Achievers love to think that they have everything under control, but we have no control over other people, the markets, our coworkers, our competitors, or even ourselves. Trying to control all the moving pieces around us is like trying to hold back the wind—it will only lead to desperation, urgency, and fear. All we can control is our reaction to whatever is put in front of us. For me, “letting go” is the most difficult, useful, and profound practice of them all.
There are other useful practices, but the real medication for achiever fever is the awareness that you suffer from the symptoms. Once this awareness arises, the cure has begun.
To understand, practice, and live the cure takes determination, discipline, and hard work. It takes a commitment to exercising one’s inner self just as you would exercise your outer self. But if there is anything achievers have in spades, it’s the dedication, work ethic, and commitment required to cure ourselves of the fever and allow us to achieve more than we thought possible.