The Constant Burden of Being An Overachiever

By Rob Shaul

Years ago, I taught my first programming course to five senior SOF officers and enlisted members at McDill, AFB in Tampa.

One of the men I met there, Ben, impressed upon me the idea of the “Burden of Constant Fitness.” Ben explained that soldiers, and other tactical athletes, because of their professions, could never afford to be out of shape. This meant that they must be constantly training for their job, which over a 20-30 year career can create a daily “burden” of always having to train.

Yesterday was Sunday, and I worked from wake up to early afternoon, and then stole away for three hours to explore a new fishing spot. While wading and casting my Tenkara rod I caught myself thinking about work, and getting anxious about getting back to it. This anxiety not driven by love or pleasure, but by worry and guilt. I’d worked most the day, but couldn’t allow myself to enjoy the natural world literally at my feet.

I’ve always been this way … constantly working to improve, grow, work – even in primary school.

A classic overachiever – I was raised by a single Mom, and not blessed with any real natural talent or intellect, other than work ethic.  Throughout school I was the shortest boy in my class. On the football field and basketball court not only was I small, but slow … and only hustle allowed me to be a second stringer. In college it was the same – I studied more, and worked harder to graduate near the top of my class.

Right after the military I paid my own way through grad school and overloaded courses to finish a two year masters degree in one year.

This overachieving behavior certainly has brought me “success.” But it’s also been a burden – one I’m struggling to lessen.

I have two older sons, both in their late 20s. Neither is an overachiever like I was. I love them both will all my heart, have never been disappointed in them, but have been worried about their futures. I could never understand why they weren’t driven in school, or driven to find a career. They seemed okay with letting the winds of life bounce them around, whereas I always needed to have clear direction.

But Sunday, finding myself unable to enjoy a couple hours of fishing on a beautiful mountain stream in western Wyoming, I envied my sons. Each has a beautiful carefreeness about them. And in just the past few months, both, on their own, have found career direction, and are on their way.

We celebrate overachievers, it seems. Lifelong self improvement, constant self-learning – all are pushed as admirable. What’s missed, I think, is the motivation behind this. Is the motivation relaxed and open, or strained? The bulk of the self-help industry pushed guilt-driven, strained motivation.

The motivation matters.

My overachieving nature has pushed me to create a solid foundation and support for my family and business. We can weather a storm, and I’m always looking ahead to be prepared.

But I don’t want to go to my grave with a worried wrinkled brow and gritted teeth.

Years ago I was critical of some of the mountain athletes I worked with here in Wyoming. In their 30s, they lived to ski or climb, and lived pay check to pay check working as guides, bartenders, window washers or servers to fund this carefree lifestyle. Things changed in their late 30s and 40s when life caught up to them and they scrambled, sometimes desperately, to settle down, raise a family, and struggled to find a good paying career.

But my criticism has diminished as I’ve grown older, wiser (hopefully) and more tolerant. Sure, in my 40’s I owned my home, and was financially stable, but who was I to judge their life decisions?  And I marveled about all their priceless outdoor experiences: morning mountain dawn patrols and cold, clear alplenglowsunsets, perfect backcountry ski days, and clean alpine lines. Years outside spend looking at the sky, granite, water and snow – that I’d spent inside looking at a screen, desk, notebook and cold gym.

I’m getting better about accepting and taming my overachieving nature. And I do appreciate the intensity and urgency it can bring to my life.

But it seems I’m a long way from the ultimate solace I hope to achieve.





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