All my life, I always tried to be the golden child who excelled at everything: school, sports, arts etc. You name it, I did it and I did it with the intention to be the best. I also did it because I wanted to get the praise of my family and teachers. I wanted to bask in the glory of their approval. That being said, I was also an intrinsic learner (someone who likes to learn for the sake of learning, not for a grade) which seems like a bit of a paradox. In my mind, I was getting praise for something I already loved to do. So, essentially, I was hitting two birds with one stone.
However, when I turned 17, my father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and my desire to excel became a way from me to escape from the depressing reality of his terminal illness. Even though everything else in my life was falling apart, I knew that I could control my academic and extra-curricular achievements. So, I engrossed myself in studying and after school activities. After graduating with honors from high school, I moved to the U.S.A for university and continued operating with the same mentality.
The worse my father’s condition got, the more I engrossed myself in studying and my part-time job. In addition to being a perfectionist by nature, I also pressured myself to excel because I wanted to give my parents something to be happy about. In my mind, I didn’t want to become another source of sadness or disappointment, because there was already so much of that in our lives, seeing as my father was going through his cancer treatments at the time. Many kids that I went to school with, in high school and college, goofed around in class, skipped class or submitted subpar work. Not me. I always did my homework, the assigned readings, attended class and took notes.
Now, for most of you reading this, you might think, well what’s so bad about that? There are far worse ways of channeling grief. I agree, but I wasn’t only pushing myself to “achieve,” I was forcing myself to over-achieve for others and killing myself in the process. I would never encourage anyone to slack off, but there is more to Life than always submitting assignments that go “above and beyond” what is required. I often deprived myself of socializing opportunities, fun outings and other equally important learning experiences, because I was fixated on doing everything “just right” and submitting papers or assignments that were more creative than everyone else’s, so my parents could find happiness in my achievements.
Then, in the summer before my last year of university, my father passed away of heart failure and everything changed. But somethings didn’t. Like the constant pressure that I put on myself to be the best. After my father passed away, it got worse. I didn’t know how to deal with anything else in my life, so I spent even more time focusing on my studies and job. It’s not like I never had any fun or I didn’t do anything but study and work. However, I could never seem to shake the guilt I felt for being happy sometimes. I suppose, in some way, when I deprived myself of certain experiences in my university years in the U.S.A that I was atoning for not being able to be there for my father, as he went through his cancer treatments in the UAE.
In 2013, a year after my father passed away, I graduated from university and came back to the UAE to find a job and continued with the same exhausting “work ethic.” After three years of working myself into the ground, and grieving, I finally realized that my work-life balance was completely out of whack and that if I didn’t change it, it would change me for the worse. So, after a life time of over-achieving, I decided that I just wanted to “achieve” for me. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means several things, but most importantly, it means that I don’t have to kill myself to be a success or to make anyone else happy. Mind you, no one in my life, family, friends or teachers, ever asked or forced me to deprive myself of my happiness and youth to “be the best.” I developed this unhealthy coping mechanism on my own to deal with a tragic situation. However, there are many over-achievers out there who engage in similar habits for different reasons. If you are one of these people, I urge you to think about the following questions:
- Do you always feel the need to “be the best?”
- Does it matter if you submit a project or assignment that “just meets the requirements” and nothing more?
- Do you obsess over minute details and require things to be “perfect” when you submit projects or assignments?
- Do you want to do well to make yourself happy or to make others happy?
- Do you regularly opt out of engaging in activities or outings because “you have a project or an assignment due soon?”
- Are you inadvertently punishing yourself for something by condemning yourself to “solitary confinement” and “unpleasant work conditions?”
If you have said yes to most of these questions, you are probably an unhappy over-achiever like I was once. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue excellence in your work or taking pride in what you do. That being said, you simply can’t put a hundred percent into one aspect of your life at the expensive of all the others. You also can’t put a hundred percent into all aspects of your life at the expensive of your own health and sanity. If you are tired of being an over-achiever and you want to learn how to start being okay with “just achieving” here are some things to keep in mind:
- Understand what motivates you to achieve
No matter what you do in life you should ask yourself “why do I speak or behave this way?” It seems like a simple question, but most people never really explore it, because they are afraid of the answer. However, if you really want to “re-program” yourself, you have to understand how you are currently programmed. Understanding your current “programming” may bring up some uncomfortable truths about the way you were raised or the underlying reason for why you do things, but once you are able to face these truths you can change or manage them better. So, do you do things to make others happy? Who are you trying to make happy? Why are you trying to make them happy? Why do you learn or work? Does the way you work make you happy or miserable? How do you wish your work-life balance was different?
If you can answer any of those questions, especially the last one, you will be able to identify what is making you unhappy about the way you achieve in your life and hopefully provide you a blueprint of how to change it. It will also help you identify people who can, or can’t, help you reach your personal and academic goals. Nobody can read your mind, so you need to ask the people in your life to help you cope or manage things differently. Just remember, you can’t do everything and you can’t make anyone else happy, they have to choose to be happy. If their happiness is a by-product of something you have said or done that is great. But you can’t push yourself to make someone happy, because people have to decide to be happy for themselves.
- Set yourself reasonable daily goals
One of the biggest mistakes that over-achievers make is falling into the “to-do list” trap. For people who have lots of things that they need to do, having a physical or virtual list of tasks can be helpful. However, unfortunately, most over-achievers’ to-do lists are burdensome, because they are updated on an hourly basis. So, instead of becoming a helpful reminder of what you need to do, it becomes a disorganized list with no priorities that controls you and grows longer and longer by the hour. A demotivating list that makes you feel unaccomplished, even though you have accomplished so much. Probably more than most do in the same amount of time.
For whatever reason, over-achievers are always in a competition. Whether it’ with themselves or others, they are always trying to do something, bigger, faster, better etc. The problem with this kind of thinking, unless you’re a professional athlete, is that you don’t necessarily get paid more or receive more praise for engaging in this competition. You usually just get more tired, more work or more requests, because people assume that it’s too easy for you, never realizing how many sacrifices that you have to make to be “the best.” If you are ready to “just achieve” and live a more balanced life, set yourself 3-4 goals a day to accomplish. You can set 5-6 depending on the “size of the task.” Once you have completed them, get up, go to the gym, read a book, meet with friends, watch a movie or whatever makes you feel happy, because life is not a “to-do list competition” and “winners” rarely feel like they’re “winning.”
- Accept that learning can take different forms
As a young adult and professional, I used to think that formal education was the only thing that mattered. After all, why would everyone emphasize the importance of getting good grades and graduating with high honors if it wasn’t? While I would never have the audacity to undermine the role that my formal education played in shaping me as a person, I also can’t deny that many of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my life weren’t learned in a classroom. One also has to keep in mind that getting a “perfect score” on an exam where you were merely expected to regurgitate information doesn’t make you a successful student. It just means that you can memorize things and reproduce them and most people can do that. True academic success, or just success, is when you can take things that you have learned and apply them in different situations or you can share the same idea in a new way.
While it can’t be denied that your educational experience will require some memorization, it can’t define your whole experience. You also can’t expect to only learn in a classroom and that’s why over-achievers struggle to see the need to engage in different kinds of learning. Especially if they have always been in educational systems that promoted rote learning and discouraged non-academic extra-curricular activities. Meeting people from different backgrounds and playing a sport can teach you just as much as writing a paper for a class or giving a presentation at work. What you have to realize, if you are an over-achiever, is that the lessons are different, but equally important. With that in mind, make sure you diversify the activities in your life, so you can enjoy your life and learn how to learn in any context.
At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that having a work-life balance doesn’t mean it’s always going to be 50-50. Especially if you are currently an over-achiever. Your work-life balance has been out of whack for so long that it will take you time to get comfortable with prioritizing things you formerly ignored- for most people it tends to be their health or their family. It will also take you time to get used to prioritizing them for the right reasons. If you have spent most of your life over-achieving to receive external validation, then being content with doing things for yourself will require some time. Whether you are an achiever or an over-achiever, your work-life balance will never be 50-50, but that doesn’t mean you should allow one aspect of your life to dominate all of you all the time. People often ask the question can you have it all? I say yes, but it’s more about the balancing act then the balance itself. Sometimes your work or studies will have to be a priority. Sometimes your family will need to be a priority. Sometimes you will need to be a priority. Regardless of what you’re prioritizing, always remember to be kind to yourself, to set limited daily goals and to ask people for help when you need it, so you can keep your work-life balancing act “on track.”
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