Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Do You Have What It Takes To Be the Best?

Ultra limited edition Michael Phelps Frosted Flakes by Timothy Moenk via Flickr CC

I always want to be the best.

I also want to have a happy and balanced life.

I’m not sure I can have both.

In fact I know I can’t have both.

Being the best means an inherently unbalanced life.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I caught one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.  Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff,  a man who lives for pool, and laments that he is not considered as good as the late “Fats Brown.”  This being the Twilight Zone, in walks Brown, who offers to play one game if Jesse will bet his life on the outcome.

What I love about the episode is the way it highlights what it takes to become the champion.  At one point Jesse says “I am the best.  Do you know how much of my life I’ve spent playing pool?  Do you know how many nights I slept on this table?  I made a deal with the owner so I could practice after the place closed.  I haven’t been to the movies in years.  I haven’t dated a girl, or read a book because it would take time away from the game.”

Later in the show, Fats offers a different view of being a champion.  “It pains me to see you spend your whole life in this dark, dingy room.  I may not look it, but I’ve made love, swam in the ocean, and had a life where no one had heard of a pool hall. And I’m still the best.”

As a teen, I resonated with the drive to be the best.  I saw being the best as an escape, a way to write my own ticket.  And I did – to Cornell, to MIT, to Stanford, and then to jobs at the hot biotech companies of the day.  What I noticed yesterday was another comparison -Jesse was driven by the need to “show everybody that he could be the best at something.”  All those people who made him feel badly that he wasn’t good at this or wasn’t good at that.  Jesse is adamant that now he is the best at something.  I recognized the insecure overachiever.  As talented as I was, I never felt like it was good enough.  It’s not a happy place to be.  Some of that comes with youth; well at least that has faded to some degree for me.

The price for Jesse was high – yes, he gets the fame while alive.  But in the Twilight Zone world, he takes the place of Fats, cursed to travel to cheap pool joints defending his title.

In the real world, the price of being the best is just as high.  For example, Michael Phelps is the best swimmer in history, and according to many the greatest Olympic athelete of all time.  And what did it take for him to win 8 gold medals in Beijing?  He went “five years without taking a day off” he told Baltimore Magazine.  “That included birthdays, Christmases, Sundays.”  And he needed to eat 12,000 calaries a day to fuel his workouts.

Phelps has incredible gifts – a freakish body with long arms, double jointed knees and feet that straighten 15 degrees more than normal. And he has d what his coach calls an obsessive compulsive streak that kept him in the pool at least 5 hours a day, every day.

That level of work is what it takes to be the best.  Phelps was so good in Beijing that he won a gold medal with broken goggles.

For the London Games, Phelps cut down on his training significantly.  Prior to the games, his coach Bob Bowman explained. “If we look at his preparation the past three or four years in terms of, did he do everything he possibly could do to be a better swimmer? The answer’s no, [but] he’s certainly done enough work to be competitive. Phelps “only” won 4 Gold and 2 Silver medals.  The difference came down to minutia – a little worse on the turns, a little less kick at the finish.  Had he worked those extra days, he may have won an extra gold medal.  Does anyone really care?

Phelps doesn’t seem to care.  He went into London with the attitude that he would enjoy this Olympics, something he was unable to do because of the enormity of trying for 8 Golds.  This time he achieved the elusive balance – superior performance amid a sea of calm.

There is a myth that if you don’t work all the time, you get mediocrity.  It IS a myth.

 Busting Your Corporate Idol will return Monday January 7th

Are You An Insecure Overachiever At Work?

Are you an Insecure Overachiever at workAre you an insecure overachiever at work? In the last post, we met Sebastian, who definitely isn’t. He takes a professional approach to work without excess devotion.  When I talked to Sebastian, part of my mind went back to a conversation I had while a hot shot in my early thirties.  I was a camping store, and the man behind the clerk told me that he used to be in marketing.  I was polite, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I really looked down on him.  “What a loser,” I thought.  “He couldn’t cut it.”  Of course now I get it.  I’m on the other side of the fence, with some former colleagues who view me as the weirdo who left the beloved asylum.

I asked Sebastian if he thought achievement is important.  “Many people want the big job, to get ahead.  But if they get there, they realize they can’t enjoy it.  They don’t have any time, and are being pulled away from their family.  For some people, it’s just the accomplishment.  I do get satisfaction from achieving certain goals.   But in my life I try to make those personal goals outside of work, for example running ten marathons, or kayaking this river, climbing this mountain.   I am proud of my accomplishments.”

I think Sebastian is an exceptionally secure person.  One Machiavellian executive told me that he likes to hire “Insecure overachievers [because they] have to show they’re valued, wanted, needed, and work is a way of doing that.  That’s the trap – when work represents your value as a person. Work is sort of is a bald gage of success which isn’t that meaningful, but it can be perceived as aha that’s my worth.”

Sebastian does not have that vulnerability, because he gets his validation outside of work.  But thinking back to my reaction to the dude in the camping store, and my obsession with my blog traffic, I still have some work to do.

What about you? Could you be an insecure overachiever at work?

Note: This post is an excerpt from my book “Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked” which is available on 

<<Previous  Next>>


Meet a Balanced Achiever At Work

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 9

“Sebastian Tate” describes himself as an outlier in the business world, not because of his results, but because of his priorities. Meet a balanced achiever at work.

“I never had the drive to be President or VP.  I made that decision pretty early.  [For me] work needed to be interesting.  If I’m doing work I don’t find interesting, I’ll go look for another job.  I’ve always made decent money, and I’m not an extravagant person, so I never felt like I needed to make a lot more money because I needed to have more stuff.  If for whatever reason [work] gets out of balance because you get a shitty situation, I start looking for another job, to find a situation that works for me.  I may be different than a number of people that you talk to, that want to be king of the universe.  But that’s why I’m still doing product management at 50.”

Sebastian is tall and wiry, with close-cropped hair, and a slow, deliberate speaking style that can drive an East-coaster like me crazy at times.  But he has that Buddhist calm that makes you want to listen.  I asked Sebastian if he ever felt work-related guilt.

“Guilt is something that you impose upon yourself.  You either accept it or reject it.  I always found it pretty easy to reject it.  If someone comes to me with a last minute request because they did a shitty ass job planning, and then try to make me feel guilty, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t know where I was when I learned it, but I learned to try to replace guilt with responsibility.  It’s a much healthier emotion.”

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

<< Previous  Next >>