Why we should feel sorry for High Achievers – Free Ebook

It might seem – at first glance – as 
though the people we term high-achievers  

could not possibly require 
our sympathy or compassion.

After all, they are the ones who 
did exceptionally well in exams,  

whom the teachers admired, who won places at the 
best universities, who graduate d with honours,  

who got into law and medical schools, who 
founded thriving businesses, who live in the  

wealthiest parts of town, who are up early in the 
morning preparing themselves healthy breakfasts  

before a day of important meetings. Surely 
we can’t suggest that these might be victims?

Except, of course, that it 
would rarely occur to anyone,  

who did not harbour a high 
degree of self-suspicion,  

to undertake so many outsize efforts to 
impress and to make a mark upon the world.

The high achievers, for all their accomplishments, 
cannot trust in a basic idea: that it might be  

acceptable to be themselves, outside of any 
acclaim, notice or distinction. Simply being  

is never enough, their right to exist can only be 
assured by constant doing. Their frantic activity  

masks an underlying unquenchable 
doubt as to their acceptability.  

It may have been many years since they 
enjoyed a day without commitments.  

The moment that they are at a loose end, 
anxiety arises: what are they meant to  

be doing? What have they forgotten to take 
care of? Do they have the right to be still?

No one can doubt what we owe to the 
high-achievers. They are the ones who build  

the skyscrapers, who explore distant planets, 
who drive the stock market to new heights,  

who start businesses and write films and 
books. We would all be the poorer without them.

But our respect shouldn’t rob us of our ability 
to appraise the costs that their ways of life  

exact. The wealth of nations is built upon 
the troubles of the individual psyche.  

The high achievers have been driven to act not 
simply from talent or creativity, energy and skill  

(though these are no doubt present 
as well) but from a primordial sense  

that there is something shameful about them 
in their basic state, and that they must hence  

clothe themselves in the garments of success 
to escape the humiliation of their true selves.

No wonder that their efforts 
are so often self-defeating.  

It may for a long time seem as if they were after 
money, power, acclaim and distinction but these  

are merely substitutes for their fundamental, 
but unknown goal: a sense of basic adequacy.

The disjuncture explains the curious 
sadness that may accompany high achievers  

at some of their moments of greatest triumph.

  • Finally they have sold the company. 
  • At last they have won an international prize.
    But they are likely to feel hollow in the days and  

years that follow, as they confusedly recognise 
that every possible achievement has been gained  

but that none of it has, somehow, been sufficient 
to quell the pain and restlessness within.

It can be counted as close to good fortune 
if high achievers stumble and fail somewhere  

along their journey, if they are tripped up by 
an unexpected bankruptcy, scandal or economic  

downturn. The reversal may prompt a mental 
breakdown and a period of rest, in which there  

is a sliver of hope, for it contains a chance to 
see that their manic pursuit of success was all  

along masking a terror about unloveability, which 
now has a chance to be quelled in more realistic  

and effective ways. There is an opportunity 
to acknowledge that one has been playing the  

wrong game all along – and that the true problem 
never had anything to do with a lack of prizes,  

and everything to do with a burning conviction 
that one might need so many of them.

It is a measure of our collective delusion that 
we are so ready to be proud of high achievers  

and so slow to detect the 
wound that powers them on.  

It would be a less gilded world, but also a 
far happier one, in which we were readier to  

reassure the self-hating titans of success 
that they were worthy of love all along.

Leave a Reply