7 min read

'AHA'! MEET: The ambitious high achiever

  • Backache
  • Signs you're an AHA
  • My one question for you
  • A prescription for change.


Two weeks ago, I pulled three 16+ hour days in a row. I know, what am I, Elon Musk? (No. No I'm not. He's far richer than I am.) I wasn't making Teslas, or burning down Twitter, or anything that cool. Instead, I wrote, filmed, and worked around the clock, to create a marketing module for Consultants of Choice. It's KICK-ASS. And before my little binge, I was cutting it veeeeery close to deadline.

So, with the house to myself and a deadline looming, I went into total SUPERHUMAN MANIC FOCUS state and produced a huge volume of work, that I'm extremely proud of. Positive inspo grind-set story, right? No downside looming! Yeah... read on.

By Day 2, I was definitely feeling it physically. I'd regularly get up to do windmills with my arms, bend this way and that, and then sit back down. No dramas. At the end of Day 3, dangerously close to midnight, I finally finished. Hurrah!

With my tasks ticked off, I shut down my computer and prepared for a trip down south to see family and friends. (Check out my work-life balance....) An early morning flight and short drive later, I was covered in cuddles with my nieces and nephews. Delightful.

As the sun grew low in the sky, and three kids under 5 started to close in on me, I headed out to the lake for a run.


Lake Hood, Ashburton. Terrific running spot.

But 400 metres into my jog, I had to stop. Every time my foot hit the ground, a searing pain would course through my back and shoulders. Weird. No panic though. A few stretches and some brisk walking to warm up did the job, and I was back on my way.

As the days rolled on, my back kept interrupting the day - but not so badly that I stopped doing anything. I went away for a weekend with some friends to Kaikoura, made kissy faces at seals, ran up a hill, and kept up the ibuprofen religiously. Nothing to see here. 

... Until last Wednesday, when suddenly, standing at the sink, I could hardly stand for the pain. By Thursday morning, when I tried to get out the door for the school run, I was done for. Against every instinct in my being, I found myself completely horizontal for the next two days. Everything ached, I was exhausted, and resting suddenly wasn't a choice - it was compulsory. GODDAMNIT.

I've since been laid up for almost a week, as my mobility comes and goes. If I rest for a few hours first, I can go out. But then I'm back on my butt, rubbing my back, nursing a wheat bag. The situation is dire. I'm off work, off life, and feeling very sorry for myself.

I hate it. I'm not running, my favourite thing in the world. I'm not working, because I'm too dizzy and fatigued. I'm mean. I'm intolerant. I'm falling behind on my to-do list. I'm starving, and stuffing myself with carbs, as my body screams out for rest, fuel and recovery.

Yes, in short, I computer-ed too hard, and hurt my back. Insert eye roll here.

And I did this to myself.

I worked in unhealthy conditions, for too long, to meet a self-imposed deadline. The work sprint that did my back in was, of course, not the full picture. It was the culmination of many weeks of pushing too hard, and letting chronic stress accumulate.

It's not the first time I've experienced this. The boom-bust cycle is one I'm familiar with. For a long time, the busts were minor enough to forget, but for the last few years, since I had my first dalliance with burnout, they've become far more problematic.

Despite knowing all this, it's not easy to change - especially in the thick of it. At the time, the chaos feels exciting and important. I'm swept up in the joy of DOING! And that joy helps me to conveniently forget what the price might be for these choices.

The price is high. Any productivity gains I enjoyed two weeks ago have been well eclipsed by the lost time and unhappiness of lying around exhausted with a throbbing back for the last week. The maths just doesn't math. And looking back on the build-up to those events, it wasn't joy driving me at all. It was anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. I wasn't feeling on top of things, so I pushed myself beyond capacity.

The good news is: I've been to the doctor, and I haven't snapped or twisted anything. I've just drawn so much tension and stress into my muscles that they won't operate effectively. My doctor basically shrugged, prescribed me some muscle relaxants, and told me to chill the f**k out (I'm paraphrasing here).

The bad news is: my only hope for recovery is to change myself. Yikes. Isn't there an app or something?

On the surface, this is boring story that's easy to solve: manage my time better, build my team better, create healthier work routines. But that's not really it, is it?

The real question is: why did I push so hard to start with?

And, more importantly, is this a story you're familiar with? Perhaps you have your own version.

If so, you might be an ambitious high achiever - or, AHA.

signs you're an AHA

Here's a few things ambitious high achievers (AHAs) have in common:

  • Multiple projects - your fingers are in lots of pies
  • Restless ambition - every ceiling becomes a new floor
  • Bottomless energy for growth - until the tank runs dry.

Ambitious high achievers are the go-go-go, I've-had-a-good-idea, let's-do-something-amazing people that drive change and progress. And to be clear: these things are wonderful! Who doesn't want to be around a diverse, interesting, goal-oriented, energetic human doing good in the world? I certainly do!

For some of us, though, that ambition comes with a dark side. Here are some signs that you're an AHA on the slippery slope to burnout (or, you know, backache). You might have:

  • Something to prove - probably to someone who isn't watching
  • An allergy to rest - unless it's temporary and framed as a performance booster
  • Impossibly high standards - and a belief that nobody else can meet them
  • Chronic nervous exhaustion - alternating between 'tired and wired' or 'boom and bust'
  • Unexplained repeat injuries - headaches, sprains and muscle soreness.

In that case, welcome to my office. The pendulum has swung too far in the 'uh-oh' direction and if you're not burnt out yet, you will be eventually.

It took me 15 years to finally snap, and I've been in and out ever since. Which means it's time to take action now.

My one question for You

You already know what you need to do. Here's a condensed version of the same list you've already read on Google a hundred times before.

Prioritise your effort. Get clear on your most important goals and values, prioritise the most important tasks, and drag yourself kicking and screaming from the rest. Say no to a bunch of stuff, and remove stressful, low-value commitments from your life. Direct your energy more intentionally to the things you care about most.

Call yourself on your own bullshit. Know your limits, get smart at spotting triggers and warning signs, and build systems that prevent collapse. Journal. Put your auto-responder on. Block out rest days in your calendar. Keep your laptop at home when you're on holiday.

Get help. If you're regularly over-extending yourself, you need practical help (other people to do things) and emotional help (people to process with and help you see things more clearly.) Review who's on your team, get a therapist, and have a regular date night with your partner or best friends.

... But reading that list doesn't really help though, does it?

You already know this stuff. You're a smart cookie. You could do all of those things today, and just wind up piling even more onto your plate by Friday, if you don't dig a layer deeper.

So I'm not going to condescend to you, or tell you do any of that.

Instead, I'd love to ask you this: "What story are you telling yourself?"

What's the story that's whispering in your ear, while you push yourself to complete something people hardly notice or care about? What's the narrative, the backing track, the unspoken murmur, that accompanies your dazzling performance? Because that's the bit that needs to shift, for you to change.

It's the story underneath that keeps us trapped. The story that fuels your ambition. The story that probably says things like: you're not good enough, not doing enough, not worthy enough. Other people have it sorted, but not you. You have to do more, different, better, to be OK.

That's the story we need to excavate and eliminate. Because that story is mean, it's wrong, and it's LYING to you.

Which means the solution to the AHA dark side is simple. Simple, but not easy.

To feel good about what you're doing, channel your ambition positively, and stave off collapse, you have to believe that you are already fine, and nothing needs to change.

Bear with me.

A Prescription for Change 

It's paradoxical, I'll grant you that. But the answer isn't in finding a smarter time management framework. It's in letting your shitty story go. Because until you make it possible to let go, you can't move forward.

it doesn't matter how well I schedule my time. I'm still going to go on ill-advised work binges, unless I can shut up the little voice inside my head (Mum, is that you?) that's telling me I MIGHT DIE IF I DON'T FINISH THIS THING ON TIME. The little voice that gives other people a pass - they're doing their best, it wouldn't be reasonable to load any more onto them - while cracking the self-flagellating whip at me: "GO FASTER, BE BETTER, LOSER!" Unless we can convert that story into a kind, compassionate narrative (you know, the one you extend to others), we're never going to find the happy medium between 'f**k yeah' and 'f** this.'

(Important note - this next bit is very bad advice for people who are not over-ambitious, highly-strung achievers. So if you're reading this thinking: 'what? I can hardly motivate myself to do my basic work, much less go on some kind of burnout-tempting binge', please ignore this. You probably just need to pull your finger out and get on with it.)

But if that is you, and you're crushed by the weight of your own ambition, repeat after me:

  • Who I am is enough
  • Where I'm at is good
  • What I'm doing is great.

When you believe these things, you don't lose your ambition, or your motivation for growth. You're not going to become a sloth. That's not how you're wired. Instead, you create space for your ambition to be a positive force in your world. You make it possible to set new boundaries, ask for help, and prioritise your effort, and have those things stick.

If you can't believe these three things, you'll never be satisfied. In fact, without this belief, you're actually wasting your time, whatever it is you're working on. Seriously! Because if you don't change your inner story, as soon as you've done this thing, the empty hole will scream for MORE. It's never happy, that voice. The only answer is to shut it up.

It's not until you believe you're already enough, that you can dial back your stress, and dial up your fulfilment. Start from a place of contentment.

So if you've read my story, and you've seen yourself in it... have a go at believing a different story. Experiment with believing that you're already fine, sweet, awesome, enough, perfectly good, and very impressive.

Have a go at believing you're enough. That you're doing just fine, and the stuff you're doing is already great. Memorise those three things.

Practise them. You're enough, you're in a great place, and you're doing fine. Write them down. Recite them under your breath. Shit, say them out loud!

Because, if enough of you say them loudly and proudly, I might be able to hear you from my couch, where I lie bitterly and frustratingly repeating those things to myself. 

Til next week,




Weekly insights and practical guidance to help you break free from the bullshit and find freedom and fulfilment in your life and career.


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