Yes, you can

Something interesting happened when I first became self-aware that I was a high-achiever. It gave me language to better understand myself. And like any language that expands our understanding, I wore it as an identity.

Years later came the next level of self-awareness – the realization that every label has its downsides. 

I first noticed it when I’d describe myself to others as a high-achiever and then comedically add that I wished I could turn it off and live without the high expectations that come baked into the label of high-achiever.

I made a Faustian bargain. I believed that to be a high-achiever I accepted the need to be ever-driven and push myself for more achievement until I burned out. There was no off button – it was all or nothing. That was just part of the deal. 

And there I was for some time – stuck in a belief of the need for more, always more. 

Then a coach challenged my perspective, allowing me to arrive to a deeper layer of self-awareness. He asked a simple quesiton – “Why not operate under the complete opposite assumption you normally default to?” 

In other words, try being someone else, just for the next two weeks and see what happens.

Anytime I felt the urge to throttle the achievement lever, I paused to understand where the urge was coming from rather than plowing forward like a bulldozer. I’d ask myelf why I felt the need to achieve – was it a desire of my own or one imposed by the external world? Was it aligned to my purpose or was I just doing it to avoid getting clarity around my purpose?

This space was just the thing I needed to break the incessant narrow-focused high-achiever need to get shit done. 

Three interesting things happened when I began to observe and rethink the self-limiting parts of my high-achiever identity. 

First, I realized I spent a lot of time on non-essential activities because I didn’t have a clear purpose. Once I defined my purpose, I refocused on the essential things and got more done while doing less. 

Secondly, I noticed how much fear held me back because of perfectionism and impostor syndrome, both of which are common in high-achievers. With a purpose clearly defined, I still noticed the fear but it no longer held me back. Instead, the fear became an indicator of a growth opportunity. Rather than avoid doing the real work and substituting it with the unimportant, I tackled it head on. 

Most importantly, I found balance. Contrary to what I used to believe, it’s been so much more fulfilling than a life of constantly striving for more. I had gotten used to living life with an eye towards the future, obsessed with figuring out what would come next, that I missed life in the present. 

This is all to say that we have within us the power to reshape our identities. Yes, you can change. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, especially yourself. 

The mixed message of boredom

We all remember our firsts.

Our first kiss, first significant other, first date, first time falling in love, first time having sex, first time drinking, first time moving away from home, first job, first career, first marriage, first child, first hardship, first loss, first time seeing your effort pay off, etc. 

These are defining moments. They expand our worldview and open us up to new ideas or realities. They help us uncover a part of a world that had been hidden, waiting to be discovered. 

But as I get older, I’ve notived that firsts become much less frequent.

Most of our memorable firsts barrage us in our teens and twenties. We assume they’ll continue with the same incidence. I’ve been guilty of chasing moments as a result of this faulty expectation. And when they don’t appear, I find myself feeling like something is wrong.

At some point, I’ve lived long enough to experience firsts. I’ve had enough experiences in life that expose me to these firsts. Firsts become a function of youth. 

And youth ain’t knocking at my door anymore

That doesn’t change my desire to chase these moments and try to recapture the magic of first experiences.

This is part of the human experience. 

As I get older and the incidence of firsts diminishes, life becomes routine and monotonous – wake up, work out, get the kids ready for the day, go to work, chores, family time, sleep, repeat. This monotony leads to boredom and I find myself yearning for something more.

I believe one of the biggest challenges we face as we get older is how to make sense out of this boredom. 

I find my default is to frame this boredom as a lack of challenge. Doing so leaves me wanting to lean away from it and replace it with something more exciting.

When I get bored – whether in my home or career life – my first instinct is a need to change something, to stir it up and experience the roller coaster ride of emotions that comes with something new.

This type of thinking puts me back on the neverending hamster wheel of more. 

What if boredom is an opportunity to practice with intentionality and mindfulness? Could boredom be a chance to practice living purposefully? 

In my experience, mastery comes from practicing until it’s boring until it’s gorgeous. Therefore, boredom is part of the practice that allows us to eventually do something effortless and beautiful.

Boredom isn’t a lack of challenge, it’s a stop on the road to mastery.

Living a purpose-driven life means committing to a purpose. It may not always be exciting, but that’s precisely the point. Boredom is part of the journey. 

Boredom is the opportunity to practice living purposefully especially when it doesn’t come easy. 

The Arch-Nemesis

I have an arch-nemesis. 

This arch-nemesis also has hundreds of minions that do their damndest to foil my daily existence. To disrupt the serene balance and harmony of the day. 

This arch-nemesis is none other than my daughters’ wooden step stool.

Or, as I like to refer to it as “The Merchant of Death.”

This sucker is a formidable foe. It appears, like a ninja in the night, without warning. Its thick and sturdy structure, homemade from 2×4’s, is an unmovable force. 

I try to keep gaurd for it, but it appears where I least expect it. And when it does, my toes don’t stand a chance against this stealthy foot torpedo. The collision is almost always unanimously a total knock out. 

I drop like a sack of potatoes, uttering every vulgar word I have available in my vocabulary that should never reach a child’s innocent ears.

And this arch-nemesis isn’t content with being a sole tormentor. It is a wily rascal. 

It has minions disguised as play things that hope to achieve the same end.

Innocent looking toys meant to lull me into a sense of security but always conspire to present their sharpest edge in precisely the spot I choose to step in. 

These toys are abundant and scattered everywhere. Their victories over me are many. I cannot evade them. 

Aside from the pain they inflict, they also taunt my compulsion to want things organized and tidy – everything in its place, and a place for everything. 

But the reality is, kids are messy. And while I get this logically, emotionally, I struggled to reconcile this reality with the way I WANTED things to be. 

I’d get frustrated often. Curse the step-stool and the disorder and messiness of my daughters’ toys. 

I’d fume and fluster over it. Blaspheme the gods for making me their personal voodoo doll.

I found myself spending a lot of mental energy in this annoyed state. 

And then one day I realized something profound.

I was spending so much time mentally wishing for the day when things would be in order and the step stool would be obsolete that I failed to see what that future meant.

It was a future where my daughters were grown up.  

A future where I’d be wishing I could re-experience their younger years. When everything was still magicial, exciting and full of joy. 

I realized I was in that moment now, was living it and had a choice. I could focus on the stupid little things, wishing them to fade away and lose sight of what’s important. 

Or I could live in the present and embrace the minor annoyances as part of the beautiful and joyful experience of having young kids.

I chose the latter. 

It was a lesson that reminded me of the power we have to control what things mean, the power of the story we tell ourselves.

The never-ending cycle of failure

I have a love-hate relationship with failure. 

The high-achiever in me loves to face failure and find a way around it. 

I love chess-playing out ways to use tai-chi Jedi mind tricks to break past the obstacle in my path.

To overcome that which stands between me and where I hope to go is as intoxicating as sniffing scented markers (orange is my smell of choice, in case you are wondering). 

Failure has definitely played an important part in the history of my own achievements. It’s generally been the event or catalyst that pushes me to steel my resolve, dig in my heels and push through.

There is something addicting about overcoming failure, to rise above it and prove that I am stronger than I thought I was.

The high-achiever in me also hates failure. 

It’s been a great source of shame, of feeling less than. It’s the asshole voice in my head. The one that never stops judging me for failing to live up to my highest standards. 

It’s the voice that discounts all past achievements. Asks, “what have you done for me lately?” 

And if I can’t come up with an answer worthy of pleasing the gods, it snaps its jaws tight and dines on whatever little bit of self-worth I may have left. 

Yet somehow, I find a way to come back from the belly of this beast. To approach the failure from a different angle or perspective. But it doesn’t normally happen until I find a way to give myself grace.

And when this happens, I generally find a way to see past this obstacle. The machine comes to life and the unending cycle of this love-hate relationship with failure saunters on. 

EVERYTHING IS MADE UP

The Art of Possibility is a beautiful book by Rosamund Stone and Benjamin Zander that provides a framework on how to live in a world of endless possibilities. It provides a way to look at the world as limitless and abound with opportunities in contrast to the world of scarcity most of us live in.

One of the most compelling nuggets from this book is the idea that everything is made up. 

The world we live in – the communities we are a part of, the ideals we hold, the culture we identify with, the products we consume – everything is made up. It didn’t just self-materialize. It had to be brought into existence.

Someone, somewhere believed deeply enough about a thing, an idea or belief, a way of living and doing things that they put it out into the world and it resonated. All change is driven by someone with a vision of the future. 

The United States is a perfect example of this. The Founding Fathers believed deeply in a particulary idea that they codified it into our governing doctrine. 

So, if everything is made up, than why can’t I have a say in deciding what I make up – what rules and beliefs I want to live by and put into the world?

USE WHITE OUT. REWRITE THE CYCLE

A friend recently asked how others deal with the tension that comes from high standards and failure. I immediately saw myself in his question, saw the never-ending cycle of love-hate I have with failure.

One of the responses had the beauty of wisdom in it (Thanks, Cindy). I knew I had to steal it and put it to use for myself. In short, it said…

There is no value in thinking in terms of failure. Instead, think how you could have done better and how you will do better next time. Use the failure as a learning opportunity to plan out what you’ll do next time. 

The cycle of setting high standards and failing to meet them without forgiveness baked in is counterproductive. It leads to a downward spiral. Setting high standards and forgiving yourself shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, doing so requires you give yourself grace.

Failure doesn’t have to be an end-point. 

It can be a marker along the journey. An opportunity to recalibrate and move forward. Doing such doesn’t require self-flagellation, that’s done by choice.

Remember, it’s all made up.

You can change the narrative. You can rewrite the cycle.  

How do you see failure? 

What new gifts would you put into the world if you could rewrite your own narrative on failure?

Who would you be?