For as long as I can remember my biggest fear has always been failure. Whether it was at my childhood sport, swimming or bringing a new technology to life within a company, I’ve always had a looming fear of simply not achieving enough. The fear would grip me and to avoid it I’d do everything in my power to control it. I’d overwork myself and take perfectionism to new heights.
Burned out from setting impossibly high standards for myself within the corporate world, this past year I ventured out on my own to start a company. Instead of taking on others’ goals, I’d be free to tackle only my own. Yet, I still burnt myself out.
Exhausted of continuously finding myself in the same predicament, I’ve spent the past year digging deep into understanding my own motives. No one should ever be pressuring someone into achievement but what happens when that person is you?
Swimming and its Driving Force
The first aspect I began to look at was where my drive for success stemmed from. Growing up in a small town in Indiana, I had a tremendous amount of supportive influences in my life. Whether it was around the pool or tearing apart some piece of electronic equipment, I always had a support system encouraging me to follow my dreams.
Swimming taught me that the hard work you put into something is directly linked to peak performance. More so, being elected to represent other swimmers in the state also instilled within me a deep sense of purpose and the ability to help others.
While in high school my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Swimming was how I coped and I began to escape any negative thoughts by working harder in the pool. No matter how painful something was, I merely applied myself just as hard elsewhere to offset the pain.
Luckily, she fully recovered. My hard work had paid off too and I was able to land a scholarship at one of the best Mid Major swimming schools in the nation. I became teammates with people who are still very important in my life. With their support, I represented the school and broader swimming community at some of the highest levels in organizations.
Due to another student’s actions, though, my swimming career came to an ending I had no control over. I was left without the support system I’d so long relied on. It was traumatizing and made me feel as though I’d failed everyone who’d helped get me so far.
Pursuing A New Outlet: Technology
Without my swimming support system, I focused more on my technology studies and an internship opportunity with General Electric. I was able to apply much of my developed hacking skills to some amazing business opportunities and became hooked. I’d found the next area where I’d place my drive and ambition. I vowed to become the best technology leader I could possibly be.
I quickly started amassing some of the most technical skills you can get around data science and software engineering. I was addicted to the instant gratification of acquiring new skills, implementing solutions and seeing my achievements make an impact almost immediately.
Looking back, I was trying to fill the void of swimming with something else, technology. I was driving myself by equating my fear of failure towards losing my new passion area. To compensate I’d only dig deeper into expanding my skill set.
Technical Gaps and Trying to Be Heard
The pattern of burnout continued as I began my push towards a more business centric career. I left an academic world where technical details were paramount to one where people and power dynamics carry more weight than the work itself. No matter how great a technical plan of action would be, I ultimately spent the majority of my time on interpersonal company dynamics and soft skills instead of the technical skills that I love so much.
Soft skills are incredibly important, don’t get me wrong. They’re vital to creating a collaborative atmosphere to solve problems. However, I found myself time and time again spending the majority of my effort away from the attributes I excelled at and more time dwelling over how I was “failing” on softer attributes.
Although my technical skills allowed me to see the answers to problems, unless I could get the broader support needed, initiatives would fail. Being privy to consequences, I took lack of action on problems as a direct failure on myself. If I was merely a better communicator or more credentialed, I thought, would people spend more time aligning to details. Regardless of the many factors that could go into any one person not being aligned, I was putting the full responsibility on myself to achieve it.
My drive for wanting to help people directly clashed with my feeling of failure for not being able to steer them in the right direction. I found myself exhausted in an endless loop of self improvement towards goals that had outside forces beyond my control. Unlike swimming, my hard work could only get me so far. Other variables could affect outcomes no matter how hard I worked.
Going On My Own: Trying to Tackle the World
Next, I left the corporate world to start my own company. I craved control. I wanted to escape taking on the burden of other people’s problems.
I had no idea what exactly I would be working on, though. And so I spent my time researching, talking to others and listening to what was going on in the world around me. However, so much of what I found frightened me. At a time when the world was facing COVID, labor restrictions, discrimination, global warming and a red hot economy bubbling all at once, I wanted to solve them all .
More so, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, again. I was bottling up pain from everyday life and used problem solving as my escape from reality. No, instead of being in control of others’ problems, I was instead inviting them all in and putting the impossible burden of solving them all on my shoulders. I was so fearful of failing that I continued to try and take on more and more.
I finally hit a breaking point after I both physically and mentally exhausted myself. I’d spent so much of my time and effort trying to help and solve problems that were never even on me to figure out in the first place that I neglected my own health. It was my drive to help other people, that I failed to help myself.
Rejuvenating and Recovering
The common thread between all my cases of burn out comes down to value. Primarily, the value I place on my own self worth. Although toxic environments would further erode my sense of value, my own sense of value would always be on an ever increasing sliding scale as I learned more about aspects I previously didn’t know existed. As I grew, I only became aware of ever more opportunities for improvement, never that I was good enough.
In my case I’ve had to address trauma head on to unmask the spigot that was driving my need to continually self improve. I needed to slow the requirement of bettering myself to a more sustainable speed. I needed to reestablish my sense of self worth to counterbalance the areas I seek to improve upon.
I believe that having a growth mindset is critical but as the world moves with it, we should better control the rate at which it is expected. People will change at different rates but that doesn’t mean their other built up skills are invalid. We need to better meet people where they are so that change is more sustainable and ultimately successful.
Looking towards my own journey, I have an unrelenting desire to help people. I want to continue pursuing that passion but do so with the understanding that help comes at different speeds. Although I can work hard to help drive change, I can’t personally take fault for aspects outside of my own control.
I’ll always remain deeply curious and ambitious. Only now, I don’t need to motivate myself through failure. I value myself enough to recognize what’s inside and outside my scope of control and keep myself grounded to what makes me unique.