Over-Achievers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Tyler and I’m addicted to achievement.

I want the best grades, the best comments, the best school, the best residency, and the best job. Whatever I achieve, it is not enough. However far I go, the horizon will continue to stretch before me, beckoning me to distant excellence. My pace will always be breathless because I do not stop to rest, life is both a sprint and a marathon—the race goes neither to the fast nor the steady but to he who is both.

Sometimes, I believe if there were an “Over-achievers Anonymous,” I would have my own chapter. Recognition of affliction is the first step in recovery, and I really think I have come a long way since realizing I have a problem, but residual difficulties still remain. Here, in school, I face a culture of excellence, where achievement is pursued not for any pleasure to be derived from the next level of success but for the pursuit of excellence itself—as if the pursuit, not the achievement, holds value.

This produces a certain neurosis to which pre-meds (and pre-dents, and pre-law students, and others) are especially susceptible. Anyone who took a science class at BYU knows how neurotic pre-medical students can be about exam points—they (we?) are not above groveling and bickering to win back a few marks. Not all pre-professional students are like this, of course, but it does seem especially prevalent among us.

I am ambivalent as to the merits and dangers of this problem. On the one hand, the relentless pursuit of excellence is noble. A quixotic quest for unattainable merit is to be applauded and serves as a spur pushing both individuals and humanity to new heights. On the other hand, I fear many of my BYU alums and I were not pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake; we were pursuing knowledge for admission’s sake, or summa cum laude’s sake, or a pat on the back’s sake, or whatever. We might call it the Eagle Scout syndrome.

I grew up wanting to achieve. I wanted my duty to God, I wanted my Eagle Scout award, I wanted good grades, I wanted to get a good scholarship to BYU, I wanted an acceptance to an Ivy League school—I wanted many ends. The problem, as I see it, is that if every end becomes merely a means to the next end, we end up engaging in the pursuit of an endless train of mirages, thinking perhaps satiety awaits at the next oasis, when in fact the next oasis only leaves us thirsty for more.

Now, in fairness, this process works both ways. Just as many ends become means to other ends, I have also pursued activities as means only to have the activities become ends unto themselves. So, for example, while I originally wanted my Eagle Scout, my pursuit thereof awakened in me a deep and abiding love for nature (thanks in no small part to my parents, my scoutmaster, and fabulous scout leaders). Similarly, while school began as a pursuit of grades, I find myself more and more often hungering after knowledge for its own sake—apparently even the relentless pursuit of ends can lead us to appreciate means.

Still, I think it is important to recognize in ourselves the tendency to make the pursuit the goal. Tocqueville said it best:

“The desire of prosperity has become an ardent and restless passion in their minds, which grows by what it feeds on. They [Americans] early broke the ties that bound them to their natal earth, and they have contracted no fresh ones on their way. Emigration was at first necessary to them; and it soon becomes a sort of game of chance, which they pursue as much for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures.”

The “emotions” aroused by the pursuit of excellence, prosperity, and achievement can be intoxicating—and therein lies the problem. In the final analysis I suppose it is necessary we pursue ends; the trick is to make sure the ends are really worthy. If we pursue achievement because we wish to be recognized, or if we pursue wealth so we can accumulate more stuff, we are bound to find our lives wasted in the pursuit of things that don’t matter–even if we get what we want. If, on the other hand, we pursue knowledge, virtue, charity, and the funadamental enjoyment of life, we are much more likely to be happy–even if our desires are frustrated.

Published in: on December 6, 2006 at 2:24 pm  Comments (11)  

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  1. Very nice post Tyler. It certainly merits serious thoughts by the reader. I believe a person needs “balance” in his or her life. Stress can me a real killer as you well know. I suggest that you take a few minutes out of each day to “smell the roses.” Take a few minutes, close your eyes, and think about those lazy days fishing with your father. Smell the summer air,listen to the water rushing over the rocks,practice casting the rod, listen to the birds, unwind your mind. Your heartbeat has slowed already.

  2. I am so glad that I am out of school and can pursue knowledge for the love of knowledge as well as personal enrichment.

    I studied very hard in school back in the day. If I had it to do over again, I would stress less! 🙂

  3. Snarkey–

    I try to smell the roses–hence the fishing post. As you point out, the key, perhaps, is learning to appreciate and fully enjoy all that is hapenning around us.


    Stressing less is easier said than done! A worthy goal, to be sure.

  4. When a person is addicted to anything, work, money, success,power,fame, they are usually not aware. But their subconscious mind has been programed by parents, religion, schools, culture, but they are not driving their own ‘bus’; everyone else, everything else is.

  5. Tyler, I hope that my comments will be appropriate. I would think they would at least be more welcome than the spammers that hit your site as of late. 🙂 I have had my perfectionistic tendecies as I may have alluded to earlier. However, the bar was rather low for me in some ways. If you go to Anngeb’s blog JustSayin, I wrote about my first real job at a fast food place. I was not using hyperbole as I describe my feelings about my experiences there and how I did not expect to hold a job due to my spacey nature. I also did not expect to do well in college as I get information overload and there is so much material in college. However, I was surprised that I was able to receive straight A’s most semesters and once I received a semester of straight A+. I had thirteen credit hours that semester. This included a rat lab. 🙂 Everyone should talk that unless they have a phobia of rats! It made me think that if a rat could learn so much, what is the potential for people. I also took anantomy and physiology of speech mechanisms as I was for that semester a Speech Pathology major. It made me marvel at the human body. The very intricacies involved in breathing and speaking helped me to have a new and fresh appreciation for humans and myself. This was the semester that I joined the LDS Church. I was drained at this point and took the next semester off. That was one of the most liberating experiences ever as I now had a choice in regards to college. I would be more relaxed at times regarding college. I generally tried to get straight A’s. That did not mean that I had to get an A on every test or paper. I’m not that perfectionistic. Once I received a C in a class. I blame it on ocd, although I received straight A’s in so many classes after having ocd even more debilitating than I do now. I wasn’t too happy about getting a C. The reason that I like good grades is that it makes me feel that I am not stupid. There are certain ways that I am slow. There are other ways that I believe I am gifted. That is probably true of many. My point in sharing this is that it actually did me a world of good getting a C as I saw that my gpa was still very high. In fact, I don’t think it even effected it. I will comment more shortly from a little different angle.

  6. I see some typos or a place where I said talk when I meant to say take rat lab. I don’t proof things before I send them as I worry about being timed out on the computer. And my perfectionism does not effect me so much there since this is for free. I have a fear of English usage and spelling problems that inhibits my seeking advancement in occupation, but not nearly as much as ocd holds me back. But I have a life forged in the bubble of which I function. And I often do pretty good as my ocd is generally at a low enough threshold to be nor more of a barrier than the young woman I see with a walker at work, for instance. I limit a lot of what I do or where I go as there are things that can really put me in a state of mental pain.

    Back to the topic at hand. There was a good article on perfectionism in a an article at Glamour magazine. I went to try to find the exact information, but the url is down. A friend of mine wrote about it on his blog damnihatebeingdepressed.blogspot.com.

    More in a moment.

  7. By the way, feel free to delete these comments if you want. I don’t have your email or anything so I am just commenting here. I want to say that I hope you realize that I would like you as a person regardless of your educational status. If you go to the blog of the person I meantioned earlier, you will see that he was in medical school but flunked out and was bed ridden for about six months. I really like him as he has a gift for observation as you do. I like him for a lot of other reasons because of who he is. Last I knew, he started a new business. I would still like you even if you were not so gifted in prose. I had a friend that meant a lot to me that was not such a great writer. Also, he never went to even a single class in College at my last knowledge. He was rather intelligent in the Science area and watched a lot of Discovery channel. I thought he would benefit from College if he had a chance. He was a blessing in my life and I hope I was his. We just knew each other online but had things in common such as type of jobs and he had a baby niece around the time that I had a baby niece. I am saying all this as I have heard that perfectionistic people think they have to do something big or great to be liked. Also, I made a point earlier to mention my friends that were graduate students and how neat they were. I had a lot of neat friends through the year and not all of them had degrees although some of them may have eventually received them. They didn’t have to the best at anything. More in a moment.

  8. I’m back. Please don’t think I am stranger than you may already think I am. You had been on my mind even before your last post as I noticed you did not have any recent enteries when I checked here after not checking in for a long time. Plus, I knew your more recent enteries were already written. Bear in mind, that I know that medical school is crazy busy. I just like to see a post here or there to know someone is okay and if they are not okay if there is anything we can do to help. I have had friends make posts before when they were not doing so good and I was happy to see when they improved. Blogging is very therapeutic for many. It expands the borders of our friendship. I wanted to talk in a moment about being gifted. I know that a lot of people would not say so much in one setting. I was thinking of this and figure that even if I am unbalanced that maybe some of may benefit you. I risk embarassment of being to wordy as that is my nature. And I don’t expect you to respond to all of what I have said or anyting specifically. It is always nice to me to have someone say something as simple as Barb, thanks for your input. Very simple! Like most people, I just like to be treated with dignity. I have had so many people welcome me to the point that I don’t deserve really. I have been shunned by a few, but I chalk that up to their not getting a chance to know me. If you factor out my ocd and my somewhat manic nature at times, I am rather normal.

  9. Before I talk about being gifted, I wanted to note that people do not have to be intelligent for me to like them either. I like people who are average or slow. Sometimes they have other attributes such as Spirituality that I appreciate in them. I like a lot of people. I find that as I get to know a person and learn about them that I usually find something that I like about them.

  10. On being gifted. I read that gifted people often need to have ways to use their gifts in positive and productive ways. Also, it is important for wherever their gifts are to be valued by society. You seem to have an extrodinary ability to feel compassion. I saw a boy on Oprah who had a very compassionate nature. He was a white boy who I think lived in America. He was able to get a well built in Africa through his efforts. It is all about channeling your energies in postive ways. Medicine or the ministries are good avenues for people who are so compassionate. However, you need to be able to have the proper balance and at times the right amount of distance. Do the good you can do and let it be. There will always be more that can be done. And it does take some humility to know the limits of anyone on this Earth today. And yet, there are so many ways that we can make a difference. You are also very gifted in thinking. That is wonderful. That too can be a problem though. I don’t need to highlight all the ways over-thinking can cause problems. While I don’t think I was gifted as a child, starting in high school, I really started thinking a lot. That is the age when a lot of people begin to contemplate different sides of issues and can picture what an utopia would be like. I would think so much and had a lot of depression. I heard that cults made people stop thinking by eating a lot of carbs and having them repeat a lot of mantras until their thinking broke down. That appealed to me so much at the time. However, I would not want to join a religion that I did not believe in even during my very depressed state that I wanted to escape from society. Now I embrace thinking. I had a Bishop comment once to me that thinking about things is one of the things that I do. I had not said as much but he had surmised that and commented on it. He also commented to me after I told him about a book that I read how he enjoyed meeting with me because although my mind is obsessed with ocd worries that I think about a great many things. And that I do including many happy things. Wrap your mind around the happy things. There are some things that are not to be known now. Or maybe you will get answers later. It can be hard sometimes for someone intelligent and caring as you to always come to term with how life does not always add up. As we used to teach in the third discussion back when I was a missionary, “Human wisdom can never come to a full understanding of eternal truths.” Those words have meant so much to me through the years.

    I know that growth can come from being conflicted. And I know that a great deal of depth is forged when we are working through what may seem so impossible at the time. These comments might fit better under your most recent post.

    You are very gifted, but you are just one person. You can do a lot but it is not all on your shoulders.

    I think life is very interesting. There is so much to enjoy in life. And we can set attainable goals that give us a sense of achievement. I get so happy when I do a small thing. I also am very curious about things and always thinking about things I would like to study about. Our gifts can be a great blessing to us.

    Well, that is what I wanted to say. Maybe I didn’t say it in the best way. I believe one of the best things about life is sharing. You have shared a lot here that has given me a lot to think about and have made you apart of my mind and heart. I have not tried to equal your poignant nature. I speak out of concern. One of the most important things for me to learn and embarassing myself with ocd and the many situations with ocd have helped me to this end is to…….lighten up. 🙂

  11. I commend you for your honesty and effort to live a more balanced life. You are describing, I believe, what I call Performance Addiction. I have a book of that title and my new book, The Curse of the Capable speaks to the same issue with more detail.I wish you the very best, you deserve an inner feeling of calmness which doesn’t come from achievment.

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