The Dark Side of Achievement

The Dark Side of Achievement

I took one of those self-assessments a few years back from the Gallup organization.  This one had something to do with discovering my strengths.  Once complete, it generated my top five strength themes.  Mine were Positivity, Intellection, Learner, Developer, and Achiever.

The report gave me a description of each of these themes and even offered some suggestions for how to leverage my strengths in work and in life.

More than any other, the Achiever description has stayed with me.  This is because I felt the definition was so incredibly accurate. I remember reacting out loud – even though I was alone – with something like “wow, that’s me!”  The Achiever theme describes a constant need for…well, achievement.  As described: I feel as if every day (even weekends) starts at zero and that by the end of the day I must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about myself.  I have an internal fire burning inside me that dwindles for a moment when I’ve accomplished something, but soon after rekindles itself, propelling me toward the next goal. This relentless need, it states, may not be logical…but it is always with me.

Yes, that’s me.  And, this trait has served me well over the years.  Since I was a child I have set and reached goals of which I am very proud.  I have accomplished a lot, and today my coworkers and leaders compliment me for my drive and ability to “cross the finish line” and to get others to do the same.  Sounds good, right?

But there is a dark side.  And for me it comes in three forms:

  • Inflexibility
  • Error
  • Perpetual Discontent


Picture a bicycler racing down a straightaway.  He is pedaling as fast as he can straight toward the finish line.  Now imagine a speed bump appears out of nowhere.  He hits that speed bump at full force.  The bike, and bicycler, flip three hundred and sixty degrees and then hit the ground…hard.  It hurts.  You assume the bicycler would have avoided this speed bump if given the choice, right?

Now picture me working on a task.  I am focused and in the zone.  Don’t try to stop me because I will probably object or even ignore you.  Reality is, if I stop while focused on finishing a task – large or small – it literally hurts.  I experience physical pains akin to the fast pedaling bicycler who hits the speed bump.   So, when I am objecting or ignoring someone this is actually me avoiding the speed bump.

This is a problem for me in both my personal life and at work.  My wife gives me a hard time for my inability to switch gears to something she thinks is more important.  At work, I have a hard time shifting my focus to someone else – a coworker, direct report or a customer – if my mental laser is set on something else.  This may result in tardiness, important things left undone, and others feeling marginalized.


Cars are more likely to crash if they are speeding, especially if all other cars are traveling at the normal speed limit.  Sometimes I work at a pace much faster than those around me.  My pace is quick because of my insatiable need to finish and check a box.  My boss calls me a “rate buster.”  This means I am speeding.  This puts me at great risk for error.

Perpetual Discontent

This is probably my darkest corner of the dark side.  Gallup puts it best when it cautions that I “must learn to live with this whisper of discontent.”

And this discontentment does not discriminate.  It rears its ugly head regardless of the size, complexity, or impact of the task.  I can complete a large project and receive accolades from everyone including the CEO and find myself seeking out the next target the very next day…or that afternoon.

Imagine having a pet that needs to be constantly fed.  That’s me.  I am always hungry for completion, and this makes for some anxiety-ridden moments.

– –

I know I am not alone.  I have met other “Achievers” who experience the same challenges, and I know there are more out there.  Over the years I have learned ways to shed a little light on the dark side so that it isn’t…well, so dark.  Here are some of my tricks.

Recognize and accept it.

When you have that empty feeling inside recognize this means the fire is burning again.  Being aware, and calling attention to – even if you can’t do anything about it – brings a little relief.

Write it down.

This one sounds very basic, but it works, and helps overcomes your inflexibility.  One thing you can always count on due to the pace of business these days is that someone is going to ask you to shift your focus.  Writing things down – like in the form of a list – helps you stay on task and brings you a modicum of relief when you find yourself required to switch gears. It is also great for people – like me – who have that constant thought bubble popping up in the middle of something else.  Write it down!

The best part is when you get to cross the item off your list.

Double and triple check.

I made a lot of errors early in my career due to my constant need to check a box.  That need never went away, but over time I have found ways to reduce my errors dramatically.  I double- and triple- check my work.

Before you hit send or call it complete, count to ten, take a deep breath and go over it again.  In some cases, step away for a few hours or even overnight.  Unless you’re up against an absolute deadline, take your time.

I also find it quite useful to consult with others before making any big decisions that can not be undone.

Gallup recommends that you partner with someone who has great discipline and focus.  They can help you use your energy as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Really enjoy the wins.

The perpetual discontent will never go away.  So you really need to focus on all the wins.  Call attention to it and really enjoy it.

Gallup recommends that you also count personal achievements in your scoring “system.”  I think this is good advice, and even pays dividends at home.  If you can apply some of that achiever spirit to your marriage, family, personal relationships, and home projects imagine what you can accomplish!

Schedule down time.

Even an achiever needs to take some time off to refresh and recharge.  But, that fire never stops burning.  So turn “down time” into something “to do.”  Plan it, write it down…call it whatever you need to call it…but turn it into something tangible that you can plan and complete.

This may not be as effective during long stretches of time like long weekends or vacations.  So, in those cases find something you can be responsible for and take ownership of.  Take charge of the itinerary.  Be the driver.  Learn about the local culture and history.  Or do something as simple as read a book.  Caution:  I don’t recommend taking work-work.  This negates the recharge/refresh goal.  And also, be careful that you don’t plan or schedule to the detriment of your vacation…and the other people who are with you.

Pet projects.

Finally, keep a list of dormant pet projects on the side.  This way when you have down time…and you start feeling that tug of discontent…you can put your energy and drive to work right away.  Encourage your spouse or family to contribute to that list.  That way it is a win-win.

What tips or tricks do you use?

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