I spent three decades in the tech/software development industry with a lopsided fixation on success. Toward the end of my time as a business owner, I experienced a significant period of burnout. I thought the burnout was circumstantial, but after selling my business I came to realize that I had been falling prey to my own fixation on success. If I’m honest, this realization has been disorienting and uncomfortable for me.
When I started coaching other senior execs through Kairos, I discovered that a leader oriented to external success might get stuck in three big traps. And I discovered that because I had been trapped by them myself. Had I known about these traps at the time, I believe I would have built more resilience in myself and those around me.
Trap #1: Success determines my worth as a person.
People driven by success tend to connect their own worth to their level of achievement. Yea, I know, I don’t like the way that sounds either, but it’s something I’ve been grappling with in my own life. I have always wanted to come across as competent, smart, capable, and impressive, and I can become frustrated, angry, or ashamed if I don’t believe that is happening. What I’m learning is that this goes deeper than just trying to impress others. It’s an attempt to convince myself that I’m actually worthy of acceptance. Without others’ perceiving me as successful, I question whether there’s anything of real value in my authentic self. (Yuck! That’s a difficult sentence to write!)
Trap #2: Success inhibits growth.
My tendency is to see life as a series of tests that I must pass to prove to myself, and to others, that I am valuable. Like a twisted game show, each day I woke up with a new gauntlet to run. Based on the results of that day, I would either feel bolstered by an earned image of pride and success, or dragged down by a sense of shame that accompanied my own definition of failure. My appetite for success demanded production to keep my sense of worth at an acceptable level and left me with a hollow sense of anxious dread.
This outlook inhibited genuine growth. By fixating on success, I couldn’t see that short term “failures” invariably bring healthy, positive steps toward wisdom and maturity. Instead, I viewed failures as (further) evidence of my own lack of capacity/capability. In turn, I’d avoid new challenges and new risks. (Yuck #2)
Trap #3: “Who do you need me to be?”
This trap is especially tricky. At my core I want to be accepted by others for my authentic self, but to a large extent, I tend to value myself based on how I believe others value me. The irony of that thinking is that I’m not actually valuing my true, authentic self. What I’m valuing is the level of acceptance of whatever curated persona I might be presenting.
I’ll catch myself trying to read another person’s body language in the middle of a sentence to decide if my communication is having the desired, impressive effect. I also find that I prefer face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations (rather than email) because it gives me more flexibility to adjust an interaction on the fly if I feel it isn’t creating the desired level of impressiveness that I want to ensure. (Yuck #3!)
So what does success look like?
As I continue to explore this in my own life, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s much more healthy for me to find ways to focus on others’ success rather than on my own. Doing so, I believe, can result in a more resilient team and community. I also believe a long-term growth mentality, rather than a constant game of winning or losing, can result in a more healthy and resilient self.
I wish I had an easy answer for how to beat these traps. The truth is that staying awake to my fixation on success is a daily journey to lean into what feels very uncertain and very vulnerable. However, there are two factors that I have found to be game-changers:
- Notice what is happening on the inside. Simply recognizing and embracing my own authentic self is still difficult. Sharing that authenticity with others feels risky and dangerous, especially when I don’t perceive it to be particularly impressive (which is usually). But by paying attention to my authentic self and sharing that with others, I’m beginning to build new data.
- Invite others into my honest process of growth. My team has created a safe space for me to make the uncomfortable venture into the uncertainty of authenticity and acceptance. They offer gifts of wise counsel and feedback, and gently encourage and challenge me to keep going when I need it the most.
If you’ve found any of this to be familiar territory, as a fellow sojourner on a shared journey I wish you Godspeed! I also invite you to give me a shout. I know the burden of playing the game and that an honest ear can go a long way.