Debbie LaChusa

The Madness of Ambitious Overachievement

You Are Enough in lights

This essay was written, and originally published, in response to a writing prompt in The Memoirist on The prompt was: Madness (in honor of March Madness).

I’m not sure when it started. I believe I can trace the earliest occurrence back to high school.

Dad was a teacher and A’s were expected. Maybe that’s when my compulsion to always try harder and do better began.

I’m also a twin, born five minutes after my sister. She was the popular one in high school. Her friends were the jocks and cheerleaders — the cool kids. Me? I was shy and mostly hung out with a couple of girlfriends. I always felt slightly invisible compared to my sister. Perhaps my need to be seen started there.

After high school, I enrolled in college but dropped out after two years to get married. That disappointed my teacher father. He wanted nothing to do with my wedding. It was a mistake in his eyes. He eventually accepted the marriage was happening and agreed to support our union.

Even though I’ve been married for forty-one years, subconsciously I think I’ve always felt the need to prove it wasn’t a mistake. If I created a successful life, how could it be? Maybe that’s where my constant quest to prove myself began.

However it started, it manifested into a chronic need to achieve.

It’s as if I have a silent partner in everything I do. A partner who is never satisfied. One who never feels quite good enough. And, one who is constantly compelled to be, do, and have more.

I call that partner the ambitious overachiever. And he’s not my friend.

Two years after getting married, I returned to college to earn my four-year degree.

My husband and I grew apart during those years. While I was busy living the college student life, he fell into the dark hole of drug and alcohol addiction.

During that time I found solace in running. I ran and ran and ran. I started competing, first in 10K races, then half marathons, and eventually I was running marathons. I completed three of them.

While I was clearly running away from my life, I suspect my obsession with progressively running farther and faster was fueled by the ambitious overachiever and his insatiable appetite.

After I graduated, my husband got sober and our lives progressed fairly uneventfully for years.

We bought a house, had a couple of kids, settled into our careers, and life was good. Until a business colleague introduced me to the world of success seminars.

“You should come to this seminar with me,” she said. “I have an extra ticket. It’ll be fun.”

Fun is not the word I’d use to describe it.

More like an invitation into the ambitious overachiever’s lair.

That free seminar turned into a seven-year quest for success and financial freedom. After attending countless conferences, investing close to $200,000 in a variety of business and real estate ventures, and what pretty much amounted to get-rich-quick schemes, I never realized my dream of financial freedom. Nope. I ended up with less money than I started with.

I look back and don’t even recognize who I was during that time. No amount of money or success could satisfy my unquenchable thirst for more. I was buying into all the B.S. the success gurus were selling, not realizing it was designed to line their pockets more than it was to fill mine.

It was sheer madness. A madness I was the perfect target for.

It was as if that little straight-A seed my father planted when I was fifteen had found the perfect combination of nourishment and fertilizer (pun intended) to grow into a great big unwieldy tree. And no, it wasn’t a money tree!

I shut down or sold everything but the small consulting business I had before I fell down the seminar rabbit hole, and went back to my simple, manageable life. I wrote a book about my experience, sharing the lessons I’d learned, and truly thought I’d left the destructive ambitious overachiever behind.

In 2018, my husband and I made the decision to retire early and move across the country to live in the mountains.

We wanted to escape the hustle and bustle that had consumed our lives for so many years. We wanted to pursue our artistic talents and enjoy life. A big part of me knew I had to leave my old life behind to accomplish that. So that’s what we did.

Life in the mountains was good for the first couple of years. We hiked. We explored. I finally wrote the book I’d been wanting to write, but hadn’t been able to find the time or inspiration to write in my previous life.

Then COVID hit.

Stuck in my house with nothing else to do, I ramped up the semi-dormant online course business I’d started seven years earlier. It gave me something to do during the pandemic. I enjoyed teaching. For two years I managed to stave off the ambitious overachiever. He never showed up, not once.

It felt like success — the good kind, not the kind I’d been chasing for so many years.

Four years after arriving in the mountains, I was inspired to write another book — a memoir. With my prior writing limited to marketing copy, blog posts, and nonfiction, I decided to enroll in a memoir writing course. I enjoyed it immensely. I began writing essays, and I joined Medium so I could share them.

Six weeks into my Medium writing career, I began sensing a familiar pull. I saw other writers publishing daily and began pressuring myself to write and publish more often. I found myself focusing on applause, comments, and followers.

I was losing sight of the reasons I’d joined Medium in the first place — to share my writing, read great writing, and connect with other writers.

I realized I was comparing more than connecting.

That’s when it hit me, Oh shit, he’s back! He followed me to the mountains. And now he’s messing with my writing career. I will not let him ruin this, too.

Man that little sucker is sneaky!

I’d almost let him get the best of me, again. But he didn’t. This time I was able to stop him before he inflicted any real damage.

I’m back to writing what I feel inspired to write when I feel inspired to write it. The stats and measurements may be a result of my writing but I refuse to let them become the reason for it.

That’s one slippery slope I’m steering clear of because I know exactly where it leads.

As I reflect on my life — something I’m doing frequently as I prepare to write my memoir — I see the madness of the ambitious overachiever so clearly now. He’s constantly chasing success, recognition, fame, and fortune. He’s always trying to measure up, and outperform himself and others. He has to be the best. He’s downright insidious.

I was reading my old journals the other day — they go back thirty years — and I was overcome with how discontent I sound in so many entries.

Always searching.

Never finding.

Probably because I was chasing a moving target.

It feels like I’ve been riding a ridiculous rollercoaster, up and down and up and down, most of my adult life.

I want off.

It’s not a fun ride.

It sucks the joy out of life and everything I do.

It’s said the first step in healing any bad habit is awareness. Well, I am aware. I know I have the tendency to overachieve. It’s been a lifelong affliction. Maybe it’s actually an addiction. Either way, I’m recovering and catching it a little sooner each and every time.

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