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.