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4 ways overachievers are sabotaging their own career — and how they can change that

Keren Eldad, certified executive and personal coach for high performers
Key Points
  • Nearly half of Americans say they are unhappy at work, including successful entrepreneurs and C-suite execs.
  • The main source of dissatisfaction: their constant pursuit of success, which is how many, especially overachievers, measure their self-worth.
  • Aiming for a deeper understanding of yourself and what you want can lead to heightened success and a healthier, happier mindset.
Nicolas Hansen | Vetta | Getty Images

There's a common story in today's society: We work too hard, and most of us are not happy.

Data on the nation's professional psyche backs this up. Even in a boom economy, a large portion of professional Americans are miserable. In the mid-1980s roughly 61% of workers told pollsters they were satisfied with their jobs. Since then, that number has declined substantially, hovering around half; the low point was in 2010, when only 43% of workers were satisfied, according to data collected by the Conference Board, a nonprofit research organization. The rest said they were unhappy, or at best neutral, about how they spent the bulk of their days.

It's across the board. According to the Harris Report on Happiness, only 33% of Americans report being happy. Even among professionals given to lofty self-images, like those in medicine and law, other studies have noted a rise in discontent.

Why is this happening?

The answers I have found, based on my years of work and research on C-suite executives and entrepreneurs at the very top of their fields may surprise you. Principally, there is one main source of dissatisfaction: the constant pursuit of the illusory things we think we want produces strain to keep up, low self-worth and general unhappiness.

Most people, especially overachievers, buy into the flawed premise that success is attained through two things: money and status. To attain these, an enormous premium is placed on achievement, and it becomes a constant and focused pursuit. But aiming for achievements instead of a deeper understanding of yourself and what you want can cause you to miss the mark completely and feel utterly defeated in the end.

Aiming for achievements instead of a deeper understanding of yourself and what you want can cause you to miss the mark completely and feel utterly defeated in the end.

Here are four principal ways in which the superstar paradox hinders performance at work, and the solutions to find true happiness.

Problem 1: An overriding belief in tangible bottom lines

Overachievers often believe that success only comes from power, money or status. Yes, those things are important benchmarks for career measurement, but being happy and living true to yourself should be the true Holy Grail. If you just look around at those who have money and status, you will see that many do not have happiness and are not living true to who they really are.

Solution: Redefine what success looks like to you by realizing that all you really want is to be happy. If you are a C-suite executive or aspire to be but are riddled with anxiety, stress, pain, anxiety, personal problems and dissatisfaction, be brave enough to reframe what success is for you, from cover to cover.

I recommend sitting down and mapping out what each facet of your life would look like if you were really happy. This can include marriage, children, extended family, friendships, professional networks, social media/networking, investments, travel, physical fitness, self-care/beauty, fashion and style, transportation, entertainment, hobbies and passions and so on. You'll soon see that life fulfillment means — and needs — so much more than what happens on the work front.

Problem 2: A crippling fear of failure

From missing a deadline to eating an extra calorie, overachievers are perfectionists. However, perfectionism is not a good thing. It is marked by a very real and terrifying fear of making a mistake, as though making an error must inevitably lead to disaster or mean you are defective. Overachievers constantly give themselves a hard time over the most mundane things. Sadly, perfectionism is still viewed by many as a virtue.

To overcome this, look at the costs: fear of making a mistake stops you from making decisions, stops you from completing your work, locks you in "analysis paralysis" because you keep finding every small reason to block a project for fear that it won't turn out just right. In the end it is a trap, the enemy of reality and of innovation.

Solution: In the words of "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert, recognize that "perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear." Forget about being perfect; no one ever is, has been or will be. Instead, focus on natural ability, avoid labels such as "smart" and "gifted and talented" and try reflecting instead on your strengths and your mindset. This will help you see yourself as a constant work in progress and motivate you to get better instead of worrying about not being good enough.

Problem 3: Invulnerability

The constant pursuit of illusory material gains translates to putting on pretenses, from pretending everything is OK to how fantastic our life is going. That is an exhausting and invulnerable stance, and not only does it take a toll on your mental health, but if you bring that to work with you, it produces invulnerability.

Invulnerability is a lack of empathy and an inability to tolerate mistakes, which are human. This management style produces a lack of trust that can make you an ineffective or very difficult manager. In addition, it's a false premise. A recent study by the University of California showed that 30% of entrepreneurs suffered from depression, a deeply personal toll that surely affects work, too.

Solution: Get real about your flaws. Your way out will be to peel back your armor and let yourself be who you are. Per above, overachievers work so hard because they believe they are inherently flawed and that they need to perfect themselves in order to be accepted, or loved, or to rank properly against the rest of their society. This idea of fatal flaws is the reason so many overachievers become hooked on their actualized achievements and come to rely on fake confidence /aggrandizement versus operating from a place of vulnerability and authenticity.

This can also create a universe of real flaws that go unnoticed by the superstar, because he or she has espoused them in favor of maintaining the facade. For example, let's say you were raised to believe you are sensitive. You see that as a flaw, because as an overachiever, you learn that sensitivity does not serve you in the boardroom. Hence, you will instead espouse more command and control leadership traits, such as not collaborating, strong-arming and so on. These are real flaws, not perceived ones, and you would do well to develop the self-awareness by seeking genuine feedback in order to tell the difference, then do the work to overcome these.

Problem 4: People-pleasing and craving validation

Get over your reliance on self-esteem. Accomplished superstars are susceptible to being heavily dependent upon the opinions of others, their corresponding status and their perceived stature — which is self-esteem versus primarily relying on self-acceptance. This is wherein lies the crux — causing many to make choices that cause unhappiness, such as settling for mere connection over true bonding and even true love (like marrying the "right" person on paper versus the person with whom you are actually in love), or choosing a career path that is "safe" over passion.

Solution: If you are here, it'll take deliberate and sustained effort to course-correct, but you can do it by not beating yourself up for every tiny little thing — and swapping it for speaking kindly and being forgiving toward yourself.

To overcome all of the above, you may find that the main hurdle will be admitting there's a problem in the first place. However, if you are unhappy in any way, it's up to you to decide that you want something different for your life. The minute you admit that things aren't so great, you will open yourself up to new possibilities.

By Keren Eldad, author, TED speaker, crisis counselor and certified executive and personal coach for high performers

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at the @ Work: People + Machines Summit in San Francisco on Nov. 4. Leaders from Dropbox, Sas, McKinsey and more will teach us how to balance the needs of today with the possibilities of tomorrow, and the winning strategies to compete.

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Key Points
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