If you think you could have done more with your life, read this and find out why.
This morning, on the way to work, I had the most affirming and uplifting encounter I’ve had in months. I virtually skipped down the hill to the office. Not the way you normally feel after a coffee with your most over-achieving friend, let’s agree, but read on and it’ll make sense.
By any standards, my friend X is an impressive bloke. Not only is he a demon skier, a good laugh and an impressive athlete, he’s also a judge. Yes, a judge. A proper one, with a wig and a wingsuit and everything. On top of that, X is a Really Nice Guy. This last achievement, by the way, is the greatest in my opinion. Being an RNG is not easy in this crazy mixed-up world, and those of you who manage it are, I think, under-rated. I always remember how, at my over-achieving uncle’s funeral, everyone praised him not only because he’d climbed the Foreign Office ladder so high they made him a Lord, but more because of what a lovely bloke he was. That’s something, don’t you think, to be that successful, but lauded more because of how nice you were? I imagine at X’s far-distant funeral he will be remembered the same way, even though by then, no doubt, his achievements will be no less extraordinary.
So what did X and I have an open heart-to-heart about over coffee in the law-courts café this morning? How he couldn’t help feeling he should have achieved more in life. How media and society seemed to conspire to remind him he should be richer, slimmer, faster, more successful, more important. This is a man who chose the law so he could help people. He spends days fretting over what is best for a young offender, whether to send him away to give him a lesson, or give him a second chance hoping he’ll mend his ways. Who lies awake at night, worrying in case someone he’s let off with too light a sentence might commit another crime. And he wishes he was more important?
‘Yeah, well, I see colleagues getting appointed to higher courts and think maybe I should have aimed higher.’
He was amazed when I told him all men go through this at some point in their lives. Seemed elated to think it wasn’t that he should have done more, but that he is hard-wired to think like that. I was excited because it proved my theory that, no matter what you achieve, at a certain age boom! you feel like a failure. We both kept smiling at the recognition we saw in each other (me and a judge, imagine), building on each other’s opinions until we’d formed a hypothesis:
The more successful you are, the harder you’ve had to fight to get where you’ve got to, the bigger the failure you feel, no matter what you’ve achieved.
Because your feelings are not a symptom of your lack of success, they are in fact the cause of that success. That ‘I must do more’ attitude is what got you where you are, and now that you’ve arrived, turning it off is so, so difficult.
Isn’t that exciting? Do you realise what it means?
It means I’m not a middling middle-manager nor a justifiably unpublished writer who’s never achieved much in life. I am, in fact, a typical over-achieving male who cannot, by definition, ever be content with his achievements. And so are you. Yes you are, you’re amazing, look at what you’ve achieved. If you don’t believe me, read the above three times again. On the other hand, if you haven’t gone through your mid-life crisis yet, maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. But if you know any man over forty who isn’t looking so chirpy recently, please share this with him. Tell him he is not alone. Even the kindest of judges judge themselves too harshly.
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