I'm a huge fan of Alain de Botton. I love his books. I love his videos (his history of philosophy series was excellent for my homeschooling), and I could listen to him for hours. He's got such a beautiful voice.
This week he came up with this. It couldn't have been better timed, given my recent retirement. Which a lot of people don't get, by the way - they think I've quit a job or something. It's understandable. Most people retire from jobs. But.
I didn't quit no job, since I didn't have any. I've been a freelancing gigster since the 1990s. I've had gigs that were predictable and regular, and at least one actual job (you know, with salary and benefits and for all I know some kind of pension plan) that lasted about two years. I'm not super good with real jobs in offices with people who bicker about who jammed the printer again.
No, my retirement is about a change in attitude. Back to de Botton:
What distinguishes over-achievers from the simply highly talented or driven is what powers them in their work. They labour principally or primarily not because they uniquely enjoy what they do or have more urgent material demands than the rest of us, but because they are subject to unusually intense internal, psychological pressures. Behind their relentless activity lies an emotional rather than professional burden. It may look as if they simply want to sell more books, accumulate more shares or have their name in lights. But these over-achievers are all the while trying to secure something far more tricky, unusual and unmentioned: they are trying – through their work – to correct an aspect of a troubled emotional past. They are trying to impress a father who felt withholding and severe around them three decades before. They’re hoping their triumphs will compensate a parent they loved for the loss of a sibling in childhood. They are hoping to assuage a feeling of catastrophe they experienced in the deprived chaotic home of their birth.
I'm sure there are exceptions - some people achieve great things without being all twisted the wrong way inside. But that's not me. I've achieved a lot in my life, but what powered me throughout was this feeling that unless I crushed every record in sight I would never be good enough. That feeling stayed with me always, as I crushed one record after the other and did more with my time in one day than most people do in a week. Burning myself out in order to get... nowhere. The feeling of not being good enough was still there.
It's taken me a while to get somewhere. I spent the last two and a half years in deep contemplation. I read a lot (Brené Brown - pretty much all she wrote, that's a good starting point should you want to follow what I did). I thought a lot. I wrote a bunch. And now I'm ready. To do whatever I do, powered by the right desire: to accomplish things that are either useful to others or that I especially enjoy and ideally both.
Back to de Botton:
The cure for over-achievement involves pausing to address the psychological wounds that made hard work feel like the only defence against intolerable trauma. It means returning to the situations that made achievement feel life sustaining. It means a confrontation with moments of loss, disconnection, lack of love, sadness and humiliation.
The recovering over-achiever should allow themselves to feel compassion for their earlier self, acknowledging how much they wish could have gone differently and grasping how their present so-called successful personality has been shaped as a response to grave wounds. The cure for over-achievement lies in mourning and analysis in an atmosphere of love.
The over-achiever may eventually come to believe that they deserve a place on the earth whether they work or not. They aren’t there just to perform. The greater need is to connect and to understand.
I think I'm there, finally, after more than three decades of struggling. That's why I retired. I don't want to perform anymore. I just want to be, and do things that are useful or fulfilling. Because as flawed as I am, I am also good enough. Simple as that.