How can ambitious people be happier?

Sydney-based Yu Dan Shi, sought-after coach, mentor, speaker and author of Come Alive – Live a Life with More Meaning and Joy, teaches us the lessons she learnt after hitting rock bottom while working as an executive for a Fortune 100 company

How many of us hope, “If I can achieve this, I will be happier,” yet constantly feel unfulfilled? It’s a trap so many of us fall into. We believe happiness is just around the corner, and if only we work just a bit harder, for just a bit longer, we will finally be able to reach it.

The trouble is, it rarely happens. How many of us have been full of ambition and finally arrived at our hard-fought destination, only to realise what it promised us was a mirage?

Our years of hard work have not given us the happiness and contentment we’d hoped for. To travel so far and realise this can be deeply disappointing. Dr Tony Grant, a Coaching Psychologist at the University of Sydney, calls this a “hollow victory”. Why is this happening?

Through years of research and working with successful high achievers, I have discovered that a lot of our unhappiness is the result of our long-term behaviours and habits. These habits often brought us success early in life but derailed our happiness as we pursued even greater success.

These detrimental habits include:

  • Working tirelessly at the expense of sleep, relationships, our wellbeing and life balance.
  • Saying “yes” to everything to show how committed we are.
  • Pushing ourselves into the ground to manage an ever-expanding workload.
  • Prioritising other people’s goals over our own.

Typically, organisations and society reward these behaviours. We quickly discover they get us ahead in our careers, so we keep doing them, even when they don’t make us happy.

When these behaviours become a daily habit, they inevitably wear us down, no matter how successful we are.

What underpins this pattern is the fact we don’t know how to achieve success in a healthy way. Most of us have only been taught how to work harder and longer to achieve success, not how to work better.

In my corporate career of 20-plus years, I witnessed the negative outcomes of  workaholic culture every day. The high achievers were the ones who suffered most. They would pull all-nighters and turn up to work the next day. They would routinely start a second shift after putting their children to bed. They would travel across time zones, severely jet-lagged yet able to sit through back-to-back meetings with no rest.

They were proud of their discipline and toughness. Yet privately,  these high achievers were falling apart, desperately wanting a break. I know, because I was one of them.

In 2008, I suffered a severe burnout in my first executive job as a Chief Marketing Officer for a global tech company. For years, the motto I followed was “no pain, no gain”. The result was that I was so burnt out, it took an emergency operation to force me to look at the way I worked and lived differently. My doctor explicitly told me that my life-threatening illness was the result of unhealthy working habits and stress.

There is a limit to how much and how hard we can work. We cannot sustain a state of never-ending struggle. Eventually, people break. Like a fuel tank, our willpower and energy need to be topped up or they will run out.

In other words, many of us are high achievers but not necessarily high performers.

When we learn to achieve in an optimal way, we sustain our success for longer and we become much happier.

By the time clients come to see me in my coaching practice, they are often contemplating leaving their jobs or quitting their careers altogether. However, only 20 per cent of these clients need to make an external change. The majority can improve their situations dramatically simply by learning better working habits.

With the right tools and techniques, high achievers learn how to motivate themselves naturally without shouting “come on, you can do it”. They understand how to perform at their peak and restore their energy daily. And they learn how to re-design their work and daily agenda to get the best out of themselves.

By refining their working habits, high achievers see tremendous results within a short period of time. They take back control, feel energised and driven. They significantly cut back their working hours. They not only start to perform better at work, but they also feel much happier overall. They sleep soundly at night. Their relationships with their families improve as their psychological wellbeing recovers. For many, they also finally have the time to reconnect with their passion projects, bringing joy back into their lives.

You don’t need to stop achieving. But learning how to achieve optimally makes the journey so much more enjoyable.

We all want to succeed. But we don’t have to sacrifice our happiness and wellbeing in the process. We can succeed in a healthier way – that’s the real success.


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