Newsletter #439 – The Dark Side of High Achievement

Recently I tried to coach a young man in a country where individual achievement is not valued. His countrymen are team oriented and few people are concerned about individual success, setting goals or pursuing visions. These are core features of coaching but were of little interest to my coaching client.

In contrast, many of us are ambitious, success oriented and high achievers. We learn these values in our schools, families and often in our churches. But the same characteristics and behaviors that help us achieve can get in the way of the success that we desire.  Consider the following from Harvard Business Review (June 2011). High achievers are:

  • Action oriented and driven to get results. High achievers don’t let anything stop them but, in the process, relationships get pushed aside, self-care is ignored and there is little interest in delegating or mentoring others.
  • Highly motivated and passionate about their work. These people are focused and often accomplish great things. But success can become too important, work can become a god, failure is devastating and life balance is forgotten.
  • Competitive and craving for affirmation and positive feedback. An appetite for competition can be healthy, but sometimes achievers “obsessively compare themselves with others.” This can lead to a chronic sense of insufficiency, self criticism, and over-reaction to criticism.
  • Committed to high standards. This valued attribute may lead to impossible expectations and guilt because our results are never good enough.

We may value and even teach skills and actions that make us successful in our careers, coaching or leadership. But even admirable traits can have a dark side. The disciples wanted to succeed but Jesus was critical when the push for greatness slipped into competition and self-centered efforts to get ahead (Matt. 20:20-28). Hard work is admirable but not if work dominates everything else and we forget the biblical mandate to work as though we were working for the Lord rather than for people (Col. 3:23). Greatness is good but we need the reminder that the greatest among us are servants, marked by humility (Matt. 23:11-12).

For you, when has a positive trait turned into something negative? What did you learn? Please comment.


  1. Gary asked, “For you, when has a positive trait turned into something negative? What did you learn? Please comment.”

    Strong point: Analysis.

    Story point: My short-lived missionary career crashed into a wall of rejection when I queried (and analyzed) local unbelievers about their opinion of current missionary activities and reported back to my colleagues.

    Lesson learned: Do not report back to your mission on anything its members cannot abide. Either resign to facts or resign from the mission. In my case, its members decided for me.

    Culture: Achievement versus group acceptance.
    Character: Achievement versus inaction.
    Capacity: Achievement versus ignorance.


    1. Galen, Thanks for your post. I am glad you are back. I wondered if I had pushed you away (without meaning to) by my response to one of your comments after our trip to Ireland. Your comments are always insightful and I enjoy reading them.

      I don’t think I know much about you (give me an update sometime at sometime). I guess I did not remember that you had had a missionary career, much less one that crashed. Perhaps most of us learn that giving honest replies, especially in situations like yours, can be threatening to people – especially to people who tend to be insecure. I have learned (probably you have too) that eventually we learn to put this behind us, avoid ruminating on the injustice, and move forward. I can relate to your story. Thanks for your honesty.


  2. Love the Lord your God with everything you have and your neighbor as much as yourself. Within this is our worship and our mission. To many times to list I have had to learn again that it isn’t all about me.


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