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The High-Performer’s Dilemma

I believe 2021 will be a turning point for high performers in the workplace… if we let it. High performers typically work long hours (70+ hours a week), set high standards for their work, and are highly self-motivated. Since the pandemic started and we’ve been working from home for a year, work has not really slowed down for most of us. As a result, our anxiety and stress levels are through the roof. And as we navigate these times, I think high-performers in corporations have to ask ourselves this question: Are we contributing to the problem?

The high-performer’s dilemma during COVID is what to optimize for during this time, because the traditional ways of being successful aren’t really working right now for anyone.

  • Will you optimize for taking on huge responsibility with tight deadlines? Then you will likely work yourself and your team beyond what’s reasonable right now, leading to burnout and numbing. The usual pace at which we operate is not sustainable at this moment.
  • Will you optimize for getting an Exceptional rating at the end of the year? If so, you will be over-committing, creating a competitive environment around you, and probably leaving a trail of dead bodies behind you.
  • Will you optimize for team health and sustained motivation? If so, you’ll be slowing some things down in order to give your team space, support, and extra care.
  • Will you optimize for your own health (mental and physical)? If so, you’ll set new boundaries with work and technology and role-model this for your teams.
  • Will you optimize for your relationships? If so, you ‘ll be creating more space for connection and mutual support.

You don’t even have to say what you’re optimizing for out loud because your team and your peers can tell by how you’re showing up at work. That being said, there’s always room to course-correct and adjust what we are optimizing for. Again, through actions, this then signals to other people what you’re really prioritizing.

As a high-performer, you have a unique opportunity now to optimize differently than the past because the pandemic is affecting all of us. None of us are doing great. We are experiencing record highs in anxiety and depression around the world. And we are approaching burnout faster than ever. We have to adjust how we approach work to be both effective and human. For high-performers, this will be a big adjustment. You may have to let go of the “Exceptional” rating, slow down your game-changing projects, and let go of the glory of being an absolute machine at work. Instead, your impact may actually come from other areas: stronger relationships with your team, deeper trust with your peers, a few key wins, contribution to bigger causes that need your support, etc. Does that sound so bad right now?

So here’s a potential alternative optimization goal: you can choose to optimize for a healthy and happy you, a healthy and happy team, and a healthy and happy planet.

When you start optimizing for these things, you’re not doing a poor job at work. You’re simply prioritizing differently. You’re more likely to prioritize just a few things that matter versus try to over-deliver on everything. And more importantly, you’re balancing the business reality with the human reality. You will naturally check-in on your teammates with genuine curiosity, you will prioritize what matters and let go of the rest, and you will contribute to the wider societal issues that should have space for dialogue and action in the moment.

It all comes down to choice and distributing your time and energy across things that are important to you. The first choice is the hardest: to get off the hedonic treadmill, to stop seeking validation from exceptional work performance, and to do just enough while balancing your other needs. 70+ hour workweeks should not be your baseline, especially during this extended lockdown period.

If you choose carefully what you are optimizing for and choose according to your values, I think that would be a transformative year for everyone involved. It will be painful, uncomfortable, and also AFOG: another fucking opportunity for growth.

Thanks for reading, friends. Leave a comment if you have thoughts and feedback about this.

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