Man compulsively watching sand fall through an hourglass.
Life, Self

Letting Go of My Habit of Compulsive Over-Achievement

Learning to accept the things I cannot control

I have a bad habit of having high standards. This can be a good thing sometimes, but other times it devolves into an obsession with meeting impossible ideals. These impossible ideals end up making my actual successes look minuscule, which in turn makes me ungrateful for how far I’ve come.

When I first decided to start writing on Medium, I did a lot of research about how the site works. I looked up information about curation, how to get into publications, etc. But when I was finally feeling prepared, Medium changed. This made me a bit nervous about my success on the site. Medium appealed to me because it seemed like you could become discovered through curation and build an audience. Quality writing, not popularity, was rewarded.

But now Medium was moving towards “becoming more relational” and changing the way articles were distributed. The way the changes sounded at the time, it seemed like the site was moving away from curation and favoring people who had an audience already. Because of my previous hesitation to get started without trying to figure everything out, I felt like I missed my chance. Now I was starting out with zero followers, and no insight from others because these changes were new to them too.

Medium’s changes caused me to become even more ambitious and anxious about my success. I became obsessed about gaining followers, frustrated when writing ended up taking me longer than I anticipated, and anxious every time I submitted a story. “Will they publish my story? Is this good enough? Is my story interesting to the reader? Did I write a catchy enough title?”

It was overwhelming.

Then one day it hit me, I shouldn’t stress myself out so much about things that are out of my control. I felt like my success on this site was solely based on my writing, but there are so many factors that are out of my hands. Whether I get into a publication, if someone decides to follow me on Medium, or if people decide to clap for my stories, are all things not within my control.

Once I realized how crazy I was being, I started to wonder why is it so many people hate change, especially when it’s unforeseen change. It’s because planning gives you the sense that you have some control over your life and can fix anything you don’t like. “You can become the next billionaire if you just do XYZ and create several streams of income.” “You can become happier and healthier if you just do this or that.” And sure, these may be true, but there are no guarantees in life.

The only change most people like are the ones that we work towards and strive for, the change that we’ve planned. But the moment a change occurs that wasn’t in our plans we hate it. It’s a reminder that there are so many things that are out of our hands. Our lives are a constant balancing act.

A lightbulb floating over the palm of a hand as it illuminates it.

In my childhood, I planned my time wisely to ensure I kept up with all my studies. All this planning was to assure my success as long as I stuck to the plan. I grew up with the assumption that if I work hard enough, no matter what else is going on, I could meet my goals. However, even then my goals included many aspects that were simply not in my control, it only felt like it was because I always had a plan.

Worse of all, there’s pressure to do well from those who know you. Sometimes it feels like your friends and family are judging how well you’re thriving in life. The internet makes it feels like you are constantly told that you are not good enough if you haven’t accomplished all of your dreams by the age of 25. This causes an unseen societal pressure to do well as quickly in life as possible. Otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re behind in life. Our obsession with success can lead to over-achievement anxiety. The feeling that one is falling behind. Our FOMO kicks in causing additional stress in our lives. This, in turn, leads to OCD-like preparation for all aspects of life, no matter how small.

Society makes it seem like good is never enough. Most people feel the pressure to be extraordinary in all areas of life. That pressure is not good for self-esteem and self-worth. It can lead to imposter syndrome compounding on the stress in our lives.

Preparation and planning make it appear that we are in control of how “successful” our lives turn out. Achieving a lot in life at a young age is an extra badge of honor, showing how quickly and efficiently success can be achieved if you only work hard enough and plan ahead. This idea is exacerbated by awards like Forbes’ 30 Under 30. It’s intended to showcase and honor extraordinary young people, but many people are naturally competitive. So now this has become a source of pride from some, and jealousy for others.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t plan ahead. Planning is definitely a good thing. Just remember that life is different for everyone. I think that because school makes our lives so predictable for the entirety of our childhood, we subconsciously feel like we must meet certain milestones within specific timeframes as an adult.

Prepare ahead of time, but accept that you won’t always be prepared for everything. While you are planning and evaluating your life, remember to take a moment to see how far you’ve come. We need to train our minds to focus on the positive first, and then evaluate the next steps needed to achieve our goals.

I accept that I am a slow writer and not every publication will publish my work. But I still plan to write and submit my work to publications anyway. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just try another publication. After taking a moment to evaluate my first month on Medium, I’m very proud of how far I’ve come.

Life is not a “rat race” if you don’t want it to be. There’s no need to create artificial competition with others or even with yourself to reach your goals. Do your best and keep trying until you get to where you want to be. But remember to appreciate your smaller accomplishments along the way.

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