As a student, you had your #2 pencil at the ready, pressing against the bubble almost ready to snap when the teacher said, “You can start.” You had another just-as-sharp pencil in your bag as a backup, next to your mini ruler (just the right length for underlining your notes) and both a yellow and green highlighter.
You traded off a lot for that level of focus. You may have missed homecoming, nurturing and intimate relationships with friends, playing kick the can with the neighbors, or a great deal of sleep. When confronted about the lack of sleep by caregivers, you might have said, “I’ll have plenty of time for sleep when I’m dead.” If you were involved with sports teams, it was all about achievement; if it was fun, that was extra. What you were learning was to push back joy and pile on achievements that would presumably pay off later. The greater your accomplishments, the less you had to worry about the uncertainty of the world around you, the less you had to feel.
After school, you pursued your career like you pursued your studies. It may be more apt to say that your career pursued you because of your achievements. The consulting firms and the global 1000 had their legions of talent scouts, and you were in the cross-hairs. This supported your belief that with achievement you would keep uncertainty at bay. You moved forward on the chessboard while others who played while at school struggled to find a place to begin their work lives.
Once ensconced in your career, you finally turned your attention to the other trappings of the American dream. You got a nice house, and maybe you got married. And here is where the cracks started to show. You may have mistaken lust for intimacy. In any event, you struggled to “take your relationship to the next level.” You knew how to achieve, but not show vulnerability or respond to your partner’s. You were too distant from your own feelings to be close, really close, with another. You struggled to connect and you struggled to stay together. You struggled with how you felt about your partner, other loved ones, and yourself, too. You experienced failure in a new and profound way. You really felt it.
If you’re like many other high achievers, rather than address your deficits, you likely rededicated yourself to work and to building your pile of accomplishments.
Leadership Reality: The Matrix
In the movie The Matrix, Neo was given a choice by Morpheus between a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill would allow him to remain in the mythological reality of the Matrix while the red pill would propel him hurdling into the “real world”–a place of uncertainty and great vulnerability.
If you’ve been hurtling forward on the achievement track since childhood, you took the blue pill. You’re in the matrix. You’re on a clear and certain track, but it doesn’t lead toward fulfillment. It’s a chase without end.
Eventually, you will probably wish you took the red pill. You will or have come to understand the appeal of uncertainty and vulnerability–of intimacy.
As a leader, you’re accustomed to achieving. You’re not accustomed to being behind on the learning curve. When it comes to intimacy and revealing vulnerability, however, you are. And this type of learning doesn’t come easily because it requires entirely different skills than the ones you’ve honed.
If you’re ready to take the red pill, hire a coach or see a trusted mentor–someone who is in a position to speak truth to power. Otherwise, you won’t be challenged to face your personal demons. We all have personal demons of one sort or another, and to ignore them is to not lead yourself well.
If you want all the trappings of the American dream, you must avoid the trap of the blue pill.