I have this recurring dream. I wake up to find myself in a classroom. There is a biology exam being handed around but -- gasp -- not only did I not study, I never even purchased the books required to study. In fact, I've never seen this professor before in my life and must have skipped class all semester long! Palms begin to sweat and stomach begins to churn! Then suddenly I wake up and realize I'm 30.5 years old and there are no surprise bio tests coming my way anytime soon.
Sound familiar? If so, you've probably got it too: overachievement disorder. But it's not your fault. We've been bred this way -- and it's only getting worse. I remember the resumé insanity starting in high school. You had to be in six clubs, starring in a play, starting on a team, interning at the U.N., volunteering at a homeless shelter AND the science fair winner (on top of straight As and stellar SAT scores which are a given) in order to even consider getting into a top school. Aiming for an Ivy? Well then, you better also have a patented invention and a heart-wrenching essay outlining the [insert hardship here] you had to overcome in order to become this outstanding all before the age of 17. Now, parents vie for spots in pre-K and use their own pedigrees to prove their toddlers' super-worthiness. It's gotten completely out of control!
So what do you do, as an adult who just wants to live your life, find meaningful work and be happy? How do you keep yourself from getting sucked back into the self-destructive and often counterproductive cycle of relentless overachieving? I'm still working on it, but here are a few tools that will ease your addiction to resumé building.
1) Stop sa-BIO-taging yourself. In the digital age, it's suddenly way too easy to see what others are up to, and not just your peers -- but every human being you're even tangentially connected to. You can witness as their blog posts get more hits than yours and see their photos with world leaders get tagged on Facebook. You can watch as their titles, accolades and endorsements stack up on LinkedIn. Heck, you may even be able to find the full CV of the dude who beat you out for valedictorian by one lousy tenth of a point (bastard!) while diving down the rabbit hole on a late night Google binge. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "Comparison is the thief of joy," and for those of us who are involved in social networking it's something we do all day everyday, whether we realize it or not.
What we DO have to realize is that their titles, achievements, beautiful babies, homes and spouses are not ours. There is not just one proverbial pie from which they've been gorging, leaving you one lousy slice. You've got your own pie to bake. Your accolades may be different than theirs but they are no less precious. Spend less time reading other peoples' bios and more time building your own!
2) Remember that the grass is not always greener. You know that girl who has a law degree, a medical degree and is a contributing writer to the Wall Street Journal? You're pretty envious of her right? Have you ever reached out to her and asked, "Hey, super girl. How's it hangin?" If you did, you might hear that she never wanted to go to law school but her parents forced her. You may hear that she's got deadlines up the wazoo and is afraid she'll never find true love. You may hear that all she ever wanted to do was write poetry and now she's 35 and hasn't written anything more creative than an Op-Ed piece on the financial crisis in Greece since her undergrad days. You never know what other people's stories and struggles are. Just because they look better on paper doesn't make them any more fulfilled than you.
3) Check in with what really makes you happy. I've had conversations with several friends about this recently... we decide we "ought" to do something because it will make us "seem" more successful or give us a better title to announce at dinner parties. I recently enrolled in an online certification program for health coaching. Why? Because I want to help people be healthy. Sure, the ego-saga played out in my mind, "You went to an Ivy League university! How could you possibly go back to school online? Why not attend a more prestigious school that requires GRE's and transcripts and letters of recommendation to validate you?"
You know why? Because I'm not trying to impress people with my diploma on the wall. And I'm not trying to drain the money I spent the last decade slaving to save just to get a more impressive piece of paper. I want to help people be healthy, live where I want to live and attend school from the comfort of my pajamas. Having this knowledge will make me happy. Helping people will make me happy. Having another impressive degree might make me "proud" but it won't add real value to my life. If there was an amazing program that knocked my socks off and just happened to be at an elite institution, you better believe it would be worth it. But just for the name brand? Not me, not anymore.
4) Work on yourself instead of your salary. As a yoga teacher, I'm constantly reading, watching and listening to things that encourage me to think a bit deeper. To focus on who I am as a human being and how I interact with others. To evaluate my contributions to my community and to my planet. To consider how my thought processes uplift or bring down the energetic vibrations of the universe. Yah, for real -- deep shit! Obviously we have to be involved in the "real world." Obviously we have bills to pay and families to raise. But if we ease off of being salary and achievement driven all the time, some of our energy unconsciously shifts from helping us become a better human doing toward helping us become a better human being. Meditate. Read uplifting books. Volunteer with children -- and not because you want to have the "I Help Kids Fund Committee Chair" listed on your next job application, but because you genuinely care about the betterment of our planet. Adjusting your priorities can help redirect some of the self-obsessing that comes along with overachievement disorder.
5) Surround yourself with others who are in recovery. If your best friends are all unabashed "Joneses," chances are you're trying to keep up with them. I know many people who are still vying for status with their high school cliques even as they're nearing 40. Who has the bigger house? Who got the corner office? Whose kids got into the best preschool? If you're not careful, this can go on until you're competing to see which of your friends got the most expensive facelift or into the swankiest nursing home!
I choose to surround myself by unique, driven, caring individuals. People who choose jobs, cities, homes and mates out of passion -- not out of competition. People who respect my choices and don't care where I summer or what my five-year plan is. Hardworking? Goal-oriented? For sure! But not for the sake of impressing others or winning praise. Most of my crew did that for a nice long while (myself included) but got tired of that thrilling chase of success followed by the inevitable crash of disappointment when you realize what you were grasping for didn't really fulfill you at all.
Overachievement disorder is contagious. Our parents and teachers gave it to us, and we proudly pass it onto our peers are reinforce it within ourselves every time we wistfully think we "should" or "could" be doing more or differently than we are. The good news is that the opposite is also true. Every time we say no to comparing, no to self-sabotaging, no to judging and no to forcing competition on our peers and impressionable young children, we are helping to break the cycle. You can be you, and I can be me. There is no achievement of mine that could have ever been yours and vice versa. We all have a unique purpose to unfold in this lifetime and the sooner we stop trying to one up one another, the sooner we'll find the path to that which will truly bring us joy.