What Are Your Values? How High Achievers Lose Sight of Their Dreams

High achievers have high standards and a need to achieve.

But when you forget to ask yourself, “What are my values?” you can be led astray.

What are your values?

If you notice in a couple places here on Agile Lifestyle, I talk about helping high achievers.

I had a pretty funny exchange about what that means not too long ago:

Why do I want to help high achievers? Aren’t they already doing pretty well? Isn’t it the bottom of the bell curve that needs the most help?

Here’s the thing: I can’t help anyone who isn’t motivated to make a change, get better, or improve their lives. I can’t help anyone who doesn’t hold themselves to a high standard. There are folks out there who can help unmotivated, unambitious people get inspired, but that person is not me.

The reason I want to help high achievers is because the efforts of high achievers, as great as they are, are often misdirected. They go towards achieving the goals of others. Often these goals are at odds with their own values.

There are three areas where I think high achievers often get into trouble. They are:

  1. Values. A high need to achieve is great if it is aligned with outcomes that the high achiever actually believes in. But often they are not.
  2. Enjoyment. High achievers score high in some negative personality traits, like neuroticism. I think this comes from losing touch with the activities that make us happy.
  3. Dreams. Achievement is often defined by external expectations. This can lead to unhappiness if we’re working to fulfill someone else’s dream instead of our own.

Let’s look at each issue in turn.

Is your lifestyle aligned with your values?

One of the beautiful consequences of lifestyle design is self-examination. Our society looks down on people who think critically about the lives they lead. Instead, you are encouraged to buy more junk, medicate yourself with food, and not challenge the status quo or rock the boat.

Good lifestyle design forces you to ask tough questions, including whether the life you lead is truly aligned with your values.

  • If you care about the environment and climate change, does it make sense to own two cars to commute to your job that’s thirty minutes away on the highway?
  • If you value responsibility and cooperation, does it make sense to work for a corporation that behaves like a psychopath to its partners, employees, and society at large?
  • If you believe in gender equality, does it make sense to get married simply because all your friends are doing it, when marriage is the single most oppressive institution to women in history?

I hope not.

An agile lifestyle adds an important wrinkle to living intentionally. What are your values? No one pops out of the womb knowing exactly what they value in life. By iterating aspects of your lifestyle frequently, you can explore these questions and come to understand what you value.

If family and friends are important to you, you will minimize your expenses so you can maximize the amount of time you can spend with them (instead of slaving away all day at mindless work).

If you value building something great that will cement your legacy, you will quit working to fulfill other people’s dreams and make your own product, service, or organization.

If you care about financial independence and personal freedom, you will stop willingly choosing indentured servitude.

Many of us lead lives of quiet desperation precisely because our lifestyles are not aligned with our values.

What did you enjoy doing 15 years ago?

One way to get at what you value is to examine your own life history.

In the course of growing up, we often abandon the activities, the people, and the interests that make us happy. In this effort to be an “adult,” we do things like accumulate junk. We get indebted to banks for large homes, when we know that a happy home has nothing to do with its size. We willingly elect indentured servitude at every turn and then wonder why we are not happy when we no longer have time for the things that used to make us happy.

So let’s do an exercise together.

What did you enjoy doing fifteen years ago that you are not doing today?

And just to show you that I’m playing fair, fifteen years ago, here were the things I loved to do in my free time that I have all but given up these days:

  1. Playing. Basketball, flag football, and soccer. Instead of doing these things, I come home most nights too exhausted to even work out. And when I do, it’s boring stuff like running or biking in place. The joy of physical play is harder and harder to catch in adulthood.
  2. Drawing. I used to constantly draw fifteen years ago. Today, the most creative thing I do is set up the colors on a spreadsheet (visually creative, anyway. I’m of the opinion that writing is a pretty creative activity).

The Herd wants you to put a way so called childish things in order to work in their factories and buy their junk. You can opt out.

If something brought you joy fifteen years ago, and you are not doing it today, maybe it’s time to revisit it. Maybe you will find that you truly have outgrown particular activities. But I bet rekindling that love affair with pottery or photography or pick-up basketball will add value and happiness to your life.

Life is too short to live someone else’s dreams

I see one problem that often afflicts high achievers. At its core, lifestyle design is about living your life on purpose and intentionally.

High achievers do not have a problem with living their lives with intention. High achievers are internally driven people with high standards for themselves. Intentionality is at the core of a high achiever’s identity.

The problem for high achievers is that it’s often not their own intentions that rule their lives. It’s the intentions of their parents, their peer group, and their professional colleagues. It’s the intentions of their family, their society, and their culture. The weight of external expectations can crowd out the personal goals of a high achiever.

By the time high achievers have any say in the lives they lead, often what they are left with are the sort of trivial choices that our consumer culture encourages us to make (as though they make any difference in the scheme of things).

Life is too short to live someone else’s dreams.

High achievers have been judged since they were in diapers on the basis of society’s criteria. Are you good at “worthwhile” subjects like math and science? Do you play a classical instrument like the piano or violin? Do you have the drive to persevere through twenty-five or thirty years of schooling in order to receive a JD or an MD or a PHD?

High achievers will appear to all the world to be successful for many many years. But sooner or later, they burn out.

Maybe it is when they get to Harvard and realize they have not arrived at some mystical nirvana. This happened to at least two people I know. Both were superstars in high school. Both could get into any college they wanted. Their parents had been preparing them for the moment Harvard called since they learned how to read.

But when they got there, they were disappointed. Harvard wasn’t the promised land it was cracked up to be. It was a school like any other. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Both dropped out, although one friend eventually went back to finish his degree.

The cost of change for high achievers can be high. Changing their lives to align with their values often means disappointing parents or family members. Or turning their back on their community.

But at the end of the day, you get one life to lead. You are ultimately responsible for whether you lead a life of endless obligation and unhappiness, or fulfillment and contentment.

Will you lead your life according to someone else’s dreams for you? Or will you find your own path to fulfillment?

That means asking yourself the question, What are your values?

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

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