On Success, the Pressure to Achieve, and Dissociation vs Being Present
Reading this line in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth caused a lightbulb moment:
“When you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you are doing, you become stressed.” — Eckhart Tolle
Those words assaulted my gut. I know exactly what that feels like.
You see, I am your classic, standard-issue overachiever.
One year in high school, I took 6-7 dance classes a week so I could get good roles in musical theatre productions. In college, I was Vice President of the student body, in addition to 10 other clubs. I truly believed that nothing was out of my reach if I just worked hard enough.
Somewhere in my childhood, I began to associate self-worth with accomplishments. I badly craved validation—to be truly seen and heard. I discovered I could get that validation through achievement.
No lie—this was quite helpful until I graduated from college. But once I joined The Real World, it quickly became a liability. I nearly ran myself into the ground discovering that the world is not a meritocracy. Reaching a goal or getting a promotion offered only a temporary boost while I grew ever more stressed.
A few years ago, I was working insane hours and growing my company too quickly. I tied all of my self-worth to the success of my business. We were performing phenomenally. I was well on my way to achieving all my wildest dreams. Yet, I was miserable.
Then, right at the peak, I fell down the stairs in a freak accident and cracked my skull open on a hard tile floor.
The severity of that near-fatal traumatic brain injury (TBI) meant that I had no choice but to curb the business’ growth.
Bad news for my ego.
Here I was, an overachieving workaholic, and now I barely had the energy/ability to take a shower or make my lunch, let alone run a growing business.
It was then that I realized that no matter what I achieve, it will eventually ring hollow if I don’t learn to love & validate myself for who am I not what I do.
And what is the point of living the life of your dreams but not enjoying it?
I imagine many people struggle with this same issue because capitalism.
There’s even a term for this: internalized capitalism.
"Internalized capitalism is this idea that our self-worth is directly linked to our productivity," said Anders Hayden, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who is conducting research on the political and policy impacts of alternative measures of wellbeing and prosperity outside of gross domestic product (GDP).
"You can't feel value in yourself just for being alive – just for being a human being. You have to be a 'human doing' to have any value."
Where did all that time go?
As I ponder internalized capitalism and strive for more balance in all aspects of my life, I realize that the key is in finding joy in the present moment.
Eckhart Tolle says, “tomorrow will never come unless you begin enjoying what you are doing now.”
I saw this tweet this week and it reminded me:
Adam is right.
We will always be chasing after something more—and the satisfaction from achieving goals is fleeting. What actually matters is the quality of our minutes and hours—and whether we’re present for them.
So I have been asking myself: “When I achieve my dreams, will I actually enjoy doing what they will require of me?”
I was thinking about this while riding the metro and listening to a group of 21-year-old girls excitedly chew over their future plans.
I was struck by how young they looked and then I felt appalled when I remembered that it’s been 16 years(!) since I was their age.
Where did all that time go? Was I actually present for most of it?
Probably not. I lived in my phone for half of it.
And I’m discovering that while I was busy making big plans, dreaming big dreams, and using workaholism as an escape, I was rarely ever truly there. It was much easier to cope with reality by living in a fantasyland or a future vision.
I decided that I don’t want the next 16 years of my life to go by in a blink of an eye like that.
I want to actually live my life. I want to be fully present in it.
So I’m trying to make the present moment, instead of the past and future, the focal point of my life.
I’m trying to slow down and feel the aliveness in everything that I’m doing. I might not enjoy doing the laundry or sweeping the floor, but I can bring acceptance and peace to it. I can really focus on each thing I’m doing. I can pay attention to what it smells like, sounds like, feels like. I can sense the low hum of life beneath all of those actions and feel gratitude that I’m able to take care of myself.
…even if I’d rather be under the covers with my phone…
I’m also trying to align my goals with how I want to feel, rather than what I want to externally achieve. My ego wanted to be a boss bitch CEO but I’m much more of a creative director type at heart. That meant I had to make some changes. I revised my goals and expectations to better reflect the type of work I enjoy doing, rather than what will look most impressive to other people. And that’s more than okay.
Can you relate? Let me know in the comments if you’ve had similar reflections.