She had attended an Ivy League school and was working as a management consultant for a top firm, stationed on a project in Malaysia. One morning, she woke up in her hotel room with exhaustion so deep that she no longer remembered who she was. Sam suddenly recognised the extent to which she had prioritised what she had thought was “that perfect job” above everything else and she started to cry.
Sam’s story represents everything that I was once scared of becoming. A straight-A student since childhood, student body president in high school, and a scholarship recipient at university, I completely understood that addiction to external validation. I knew that being an overachiever could be paradoxical: sensitive to the desire to please those yet sometimes unbelievably selfish in that quest to earn affection.
As the Education Director at The Escape School, the official face of my role entails producing courses, events and e-guides for 150,000 members. Unofficially, I use my personal experience as a recovering overachiever to play makeshift therapist, absorbing stories like Sam’s and refining my own understanding of the ‘quarter-life crisis’ of the twenty-something Type A personality. There are two books that I have personally found invaluable.
What makes the quarter-life crisis of the overachiever different is the extent to which they deeply struggle with embracing their own individuality, particularly when it comes to separating themselves from their parents. Any twenty-something knows on a rational level that they are far too old to actually place too much weight on Mum and Dad’s opinion, yet this specific confusion is an emotional minefield that I have seen countless members struggle with.
Our website attracts the investment banker who wants to start a food business; the accountant dreaming of traveling through Africa; the advertising executive who envisions working at a charity in Nepal. What unites them is their desire to shift direction but a guilt that rises up within them when they dare to dream of something different.
Accompanying this guilt is a despair over how to actually translate this into action. Such despair, I’ve realised, often comes from a reluctance to embracing Churchill’s advice: “You make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.”
The first book that I have found particularly useful is Getting Unstuck by Timothy Butler, Senior Fellow of Business Administration and Director of Career Development Programs at the Harvard Business School. He explores the concept of “impasse” — a psychological pothole that can lead to feelings of tiredness and worthlessness but ultimately acts as a developmental necessity.
Butler argues that impasse is to be embraced instead of avoided and is often a requirement for people to improve their psychological maps. An unwillingness to accept the negative aspects of impasse can also block the positive aspects of metamorphosis.
At an event last year, I found myself talking to a 25-year-old accountant who despised his job and found his organisation largely uninspiring. Over the course of our chat he went from talking about how badly he wanted to work for Red Bull; telling me the steps he had taken to enact his escape to that company; then eventually retreated back to accepting his original predicament, after reiterating that there was no way he could ever break the silent promises he had already made to his father about following in his footsteps.
I was tempted to recommend the second book I consider compulsory reading for any overachiever going through a quarter-life crisis, despite its very painfully American title: Reinventing Your Life by Jeffrey E. Young, Ph.D., and Janet S. Klosko, Ph.D. This book takes a more personal approach to deciphering the context behind identity crisis and explores schema therapy: a schema or lifetrap being the map through which we interpret reality and a maladaptive one being a toxic, unhelpful lens triggering depression and anguish.
The most common self-defeating emotional pattern affecting overachievers like that accountant on the train could be ‘approval-seeking’ — a lens where excessive importance is placed on gaining recognition from others at the expense of building a secure and authentic sense of self.
This ties self-esteem to the reactions of others as opposed to one’s innate inclinations. Sometimes this involves an overemphasis on achievement, status, or appearance as a means of winning admiration or attention, often prompting major life decisions that later feel unsatisfying or inauthentic as well as causing a hypersensitivity to rejection.
These books may not have all the answers but they certainly seem to help our members ask themselves better questions. One such member is Sarah, who recently left her job at a law firm to sail around the world. She has no idea what she will be doing next but told me that the liberation from her own personal Faustian bargain was worth her upcoming year of relying heavily on her savings account.
If the answers were easy, there would be no stories to tell. The more stories I hear, the more I realise that an impasse makes it is easy to feel anchorless, yet I am reminded by our members on a daily basis that we are lost only until we search for what may have been inside us all along.