7 Mins Read

Shift From Pain To Purpose: Understanding The Drive That Drives You

Brandon Fluharty |

Brandon Fluharty |

⚡️ Today’s level up ⚡️

Today’s edition explores a common phenomenon found in high-performance environments, known as the “insecure overachiever.” These performers are driven by past pains, stemming generally from childhood, which can lead to bigger issues down the road. I outline three ways you can shift from fueling your drive with pain to purpose, enabling you to go further in your career on your terms.

Let’s go!

Read time: <7 minutes

If you missed last week, read it here.


Are you an “insecure overachiever?”

Six years ago, shortly after joining LivePerson where I began my final stint in corporate sales, I read this HBR article, and it hit me hard.

Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy.

The term “insecure overachiever” comes from Laura Empson, professor at Cass Business School, London, and the author of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas. Her book focuses on elite professional firms – like consulting firms, law firms, and investment banks, but the concept resonated with me because I feel like strategic sales teams often operate like these types of companies.

The root of this inadequacy generally stems from childhood.

Empson explains it like this:

“Insecure overachievers are made, not born, and typically in childhood, through experiencing psychological, financial, or physical insecurity. For example, children who experience sudden and unexpected poverty may find that, as adults, they are never able to earn enough to overcome their fear that this will happen again.

Insecure overachievers often doubt their worth in highly competitive environments, and so they work harder and harder to compensate.

Some children grow up believing that they are noticed and valued by their parents only when they are excelling. This attitude may persist long after they have left home because they have internalized that insecurity as part of their identity.”

Pain may get you into the game, but purpose elevates your game

Being an insecure overachiever is nothing to be ashamed of.

In fact, it explains the high levels of achievement from many of the people we admire – from sports to entertainment to business. A lot of driven people achieve a lot of big things stemming from pain.

However, without a conscious understanding of where your drive stems from or how to better channel it, other issues can develop down the road, especially within environments that prize hustle culture or with leaders who take advantage of insecure overachievers.

Here’s Professor Empson going on to explain the good and bad in real-life examples:

David Morley, a former global senior partner at leading global law firm Allen and Overy likens the senior lawyer on a transaction to the ringmaster of a giant circus that’s going on around them.

“If you’re good at it and you enjoy it, that’s very stimulating,” he says. “You can render a large bill at the end, which is paid by a grateful client, and so you’ve got a very tangible number on the page illustrating the value that you’ve added. And then the phone rings and you’re on to the next one… It’s almost like a drug… this flow of excitement… and there are a lot of positive rewards that come from that.”

The tendency to work hard is reinforced by the strong culture of social control created by elite professional organizations. On the one hand, this is comforting. Some professionals I have studied refer to their firms as being like a “family,” or something even more intense.

As one consultant described it, “When I first came here, I thought, this place feels like a cult. But now I have been here a while, I think it is great.”

However, taken to extremes, the long hours and being constantly driven to excel can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, ranging from simple exhaustion to chronic pain, addictions, eating disorders, depression, and worse. The insecure overachiever’s sense of commitment can lead to extreme conformity and the normalization of unhealthy behaviors.

Paradoxically, the professionals I studied still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organizations, which, after all, have invested in work-life balance initiatives and wellness programs. Instead, they blame themselves for being inadequate.

Their colleagues seem to be coping, and they take that as further evidence of their own inadequacy. They do not talk honestly to their colleagues about their problems, thus perpetuating the myth of the invincible professional, which encourages their colleagues to feel inadequate in turn. If they suffer burnout, they think it is their fault. Their organization and its leadership are absolved of responsibility, so nothing fundamental changes.

As a result, by the time insecure overachievers become leaders of their organizations, they unconsciously replicate the systems of social control and overwork that helped to create them.

As you can see, the cycle never ends.

Whatever experiences or traumas you may carry over from childhood, or whatever performance-driven environment you may work in now, there comes a point where you need to make a conscious break away from fueling your drive from pain and, instead, replace it through more purposeful pursuits – like mastery of your craft, impacting others, or sustaining flow state.

Otherwise, pain leads to more pain down the road.

Operating based on purpose is healthier and more sustainable. Once you get off the status treadmill, you realize there is a lot more space in which to run and spread your wings. This allows you to fly higher, faster, and farther.

Three ways to shift your drive from pain to purpose

1. Understand your triggers.

Is it the sales leaderboard email that goes out every Monday morning? Is it someone you’re connected with on LinkedIn bragging about their results? Is it a colleague bating you into a battle royale every quarter? Figure out what is causing the frustrations or unnecessary anxiety and make appropriate changes – unsubscribing, unfollowing, or ignoring are three favorite actions of Purposeful Performers.

2. Define success on your terms, not others.

In order to ensure your decisions are based on what you want, and not just what your company is scaring you into wanting, you need to carve out moments of reflection. Try scheduling a shutdown routine at the end of each day and capture how you’re feeling about your performance. Write down your reflections and check in with them every once in a while. Are you moving closer to who you want to be as a professional without sacrificing what you need to be as a human, or are you moving further away? It’s your career, your life – so you need to take the steering wheel.

3. Find the facts and celebrate your wins.

Once an insecure overachiever has achieved a goal, they tend to discount it quickly and set the bar even higher. Do you really have to set it higher? Does quota have to be crushed or President’s Club hit every year for you to feel worthy? These are the status games you need to rise above. They’re natural outcomes, nice-to-haves, but not necessities. Keep a win/loss diary and document all the lessons you learned from every opportunity you pursue. Checking back on this frequently, say every month, will help you to develop a strong skill stack that will serve you well over the long arc of life and give you many options to pursue when you’re ready.

You may also enjoy reading: Ditch The Activity Game And Graduate To The Impact Game

That’s a wrap! See you next week.


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