The case of the unhappy high achiever is much more common than you might think. Where  individuals who have gained much career success of the conventional type — so called “high achievers” — feel deeply unfulfilled despite all their external achievements.

Very often, the problem is one of  deferred happiness. Falsely pinning your happiness to arbitrary external achievements that are all “out there” in the future. Pinnacles and mountaintops, which even when finally reached, feel meaningless. Today, I share with you an anecdote from my one-to-one work that is a good illustration of this. 

Unhappy high achiever: An anecdote

Alex was confident, intelligent and highly successful in her field. Despite all this, she expressed feeling deeply dissatisfied, even hollow. As if something fundamental was missing from her life. And, this was really starting to affect her self-confidence.

Alex’s habitual pattern was to seek that missing something through the next ‘challenge’. Perhaps a new role? Perhaps a new country? To Alex, the solution seemed always to lie in the next thing. But, now she wasn’t sure what that next thing might be.

What is this success you seek?

So, I invited Alex to imagine that she had found her next challenge and that this brought her all the success in the world that she could possibly dream of. To really get in touch with the internal experience of what mega-success might be like for her.

Alex repeated this process while standing in different locations of the room, with each location representing a different metaphorical place of future success. Finally, I invited her to consider how she felt about her life today and to select a further metaphorical place to represent that.

An illusion?

I am never quite sure how these sessions will turn-out. They are a process of constant experimentation on my part and seem to take on lives of their own according to each individual’s situation and inclination. So, what Alex reported surprised us both. She reported that all the different ‘places of success’ she had stood in felt exactly the same to her – all deeply lacking in something. And, that these future imagined places of mega-success actually felt no-different to her life today. So, was there really any point in chasing them?

Seeing through the illusion

What Alex started to realise was how she always looks to the outside for answers. Expecting that fulfilment would someday come through the next thing, while ignoring something very fundamental – her inner state. How she relates to herself, her work and to life itself. What began to emerge was how for much of her life, Alex had been operating from a place of deep insecurity and needing to prove herself through achievement. Something she recognised that she no longer needed to be weighed down by.

Noticing you are an unhappy high achiever is good news!

And, don’t be discouraged if you feel like an unhappy high achiever. Rather, celebrate it! It is far better to become awake to the reality of your life than to be blind to it. How many people spend their whole lives running and running, without a moment’s pause, only to look back with regret as old age and death begin to knock at the door.

So, if you notice how external achievement brings you little contentment, that is very good news indeed. It is the start of a fertile enquiry that ultimately creates greater choice. I, myself, was an unhappy high achiever, before I started to pay attention to the gnawing feeling of hollowness within. It was such noticing that led me to investigate my life further. To really know myself and make important changes.  Changes that now enable me to live in a way that I can wholeheartedly embrace.

Final words

So, if you feel like an unhappy high achiever, welcome it as a golden insight. Really ask yourself if you are chasing after something elusive without you even realising it? If you are living a script handed to you by someone else because you never really paused to think about it? Remember that lasting contentment is to be found within — it is inside out, rather than outside in.

Cover Image: Sam-War by Alice Neil,1941 


Harsha PereraHarsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.