If you’re anything like me—a class A overachiever—you’ve probably been advised more than once to slow down. Relax, take a breath, just enjoy your latest success for a bit before worrying about the next one.
And your mind was probably busy saying, “What if I can’t keep succeeding? What if tomorrow I become a complete and utter failure? That success didn’t really mean anything, anyway. I’ve got to keep trying harder, harder, harder.”
(That’s the internal monologue, of course. Out loud, you smile and say, “You’re so right, I will slow down! Gotta take care of myself!”)
And though this obsessive achievement anxiety has some upsides, it mostly wastes time and inhibits happiness, self-confidence, and ongoing success.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the bestselling author and Wharton professor, has a short-term fix for overachievers. In the November edition of “Wondering,” a monthly feature on his website in which he answers reader emails, he responded to a reader who asked how to “find inner peace when you’re a high achiever but restless within.” Grant says this is an issue he struggles with, too.
“After I finished writing Originals, a friend asked me how I was planning to celebrate my second book. It hadn’t even occurred to me: I was already mapping out the third one,” he writes.
Once aware of his behavior, Grant attempted various slow-down strategies. The one that stuck was what he refers to as the time machine. “I turned the dial back five years,” he explains. “If I had known then that I would write a second book, would I have been happy? No, I would’ve been delirious.”
This mental time-travel, Grant promises, allows you to view your achievements in the context of past expectations. “And for a few minutes, before you’re jolted back to the present, you’ll feel contented. Maybe even proud.”
The trick works because it takes you out of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck would call a fixed mindset, which assumes that things like character, intelligence, and creative ability are static—and that any success we have is an affirmation of those traits, while failure is a denial of them. With a growth mindset, on the other hand, you believe that traits like intelligence and creativity can be cultivated through experience, regardless of whether the learning comes from a success or a failure.
Shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mentality takes significant time and effort. I tested the time machine strategy this week, after the biggest feature story of my career thus far, which I’d reported on and agonized over for months, published on Quartz At Work. While the feedback I got was great, two days after the story ran I found my satisfaction already replaced by a familiar monologue: “The other stories I wrote this week were not hits. I’m not sure what I’ll write next. I’m already on the decline.”
Though aware of how crazy I sounded, I couldn’t shut those voices up. So I closed my eyes, and visualized the moment before that big feature was published, when I was freaked out, refreshing my browser, and feeling convinced the piece would be a total flop. And I visualized what happened a short while later, when I heard from a colleague I barely know. He’d read the piece: “That feature was 💯.” When I read that message, my nerves instantly calmed. I smiled and felt genuinely proud, and stopped worrying so much about how the article would fare elsewhere.
Cliche as it sounds, remembering all of this a few days later made me smile and feel genuinely proud once again.
No, the exercise didn’t turn me into a growth-mindset guru, and it certainly didn’t permanently resolve my overachievement anxiety. But it did give me temporary reprieve—and in the middle of the workday, I can’t ask for much more.