The enemy is within

Many years ago I read this essay titled Why over­achiev­ers go down the path of self-destruc­tion writ­ten by Sub­ro­to Bagchi.

Although I am far from being an over­achiev­er, that post has helped me become aware of some of the mis­takes dri­ven peo­ple make. It is prob­a­bly one of the ear­li­est mate­ri­als from where I learned the impor­tance of humil­i­ty, self-aware­ness and dis­as­so­ci­at­ing myself from my suc­cess­es.

The oth­er rea­son why this arti­cle stuck to my mind for years is that I am fear­ful of giv­ing in to dis­trac­tions and temp­ta­tions life throws at me from time to time. It is hard to be vig­i­lant even with all the aware­ness. But by try­ing to be aware, I am hop­ing to improve my odds of mak­ing bet­ter choic­es in the crit­i­cal areas of my life.

I repro­duced this arti­cle here just in case the orig­i­nal one gets lost in the inter­webs.

Why overachievers go down the path of self-destruction

Life does not place hurdles in the way of an overachiever. Instead, life uses distractions

For many years now, I have been study­ing over­achiev­ers in the pro­fes­sion­al world; these are peo­ple who have high IQ, emi­nent qual­i­fi­ca­tions, expe­ri­ence, the pow­er of an ear­ly start and quite often, very sup­port­ive fam­i­lies. You think they are God’s cho­sen ones and there is no stop­ping how far they may go. Then one morn­ing you wake up to find the angel fall. Actu­al­ly, it is not a fall, it is invari­ably a crash; only splin­ters remain where once stood a David by Michelan­ge­lo. How does that hap­pen? Who kills the angel? I have come to believe that in most such cas­es, there is no exter­nal ene­my. Only ordi­nary peo­ple need an exter­nal ene­my. The over­achiev­er is his best friend and his worst ene­my. This prob­a­bly is life’s way to ensure that we do not become immor­tal. Its secrets are prob­a­bly stored in the DNA as much as it is a func­tion of how the neo-cor­tex responds to the envi­ron­ment.

Some­times I imag­ine the image of the dou­ble-helix struc­ture of the DNA; it depicts who we are and has a microc­ode flow­ing from time immemo­r­i­al to make me who I am; a microc­ode not of the Kar­ma, but the deci­sion­al rules we may exer­cise or fail to exer­cise when temp­ta­tion strikes. The dou­ble helix struc­ture sug­gests bound­less pos­si­bil­i­ties as one of the two sides of the lad­der — self-destruc­tion is the oth­er side. For the over­achiev­er, it is dif­fi­cult to bal­ance the two and only the self-aware among them are able to bal­ance between them. The self-aware know that at any point in time, they are a few steps, some­times a few min­utes away from a fall. Destruc­tion of great capa­bil­i­ty does not take a life­time or for that mat­ter, hours. More often than not, it is just a moment of indis­cre­tion.

Sev­en min­utes of plea­sure brought Bill Clin­ton, the most pow­er­ful man in the world at the time, to rank ordi­nar­i­ness. That angel fell like porce­lain on mar­ble. What hap­pened to Strauss-Kahn? Wasn’t he the man who was expect­ed to bring Europe back from the brink of dis­as­ter? Theirs are not instances of sex­u­al pro­cliv­i­ty. Under the sur­face, it is the dou­ble helix say­ing, ‘come die’.

It is very inter­est­ing that life does not place hur­dles in the way of an over­achiev­er. Hur­dles are actu­al­ly life’s gym equip­ment meant to improve the mus­cle tone and help one deal with more. Instead of hur­dles, life uses dis­trac­tions. There are myth­i­cal evi­dences galore that tell us how the Gods try the final dis­trac­tion of wom­an­hood, the ori­gin of all pow­er, to desta­bilise and destroy the one who is climb­ing to the peak. But they use oth­er dis­trac­tions as well. Satyam did not need com­pe­ti­tion to hurt the com­pa­ny, its founder hurt Satyam. His one moment of dis­trac­tion — the first fudged finan­cial state­ment — opened win­dow upon win­dow of pro­gres­sive death until one day, the porce­lain doll crashed into a thou­sand splin­tered pieces. The same thing hap­pened with SKS and now OnMo­bile.

The over­achiev­er doesn’t exact­ly die after each such inci­dent, not at least in a phys­i­cal sense. What dies is the rep­u­ta­tion cap­i­tal. Then they, and sym­pa­thet­ic onlook­ers, explain away by say­ing, the over­achiev­er was drawn into indis­cre­tion. That there was an exter­nal rea­son that caused the behav­iour. It is just a con­ve­nient deflec­tion. One of the ear­li­est exam­ples of such deflec­tion is in the sto­ry of the sage, Valmi­ki. He was a ban­dit who slaugh­tered passers-by and ran away with their belong­ings. His jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the bru­tal­i­ty: He had to pro­vide for his fam­i­ly. This con­tin­ued until his wife reject­ed that intel­lec­tu­al con­struct. She told him that he and he alone had cho­sen his path and was respon­si­ble for the con­se­quences.

Unlike Valmi­ki, today’s high achiev­ers, busi­ness­men to bureau­crats, sports per­sons to politi­cians, deflect. There is none to tell them that they are deflect­ing. They say they are doing it all for the sake of oth­ers, because of exter­nal rea­sons. When you are dop­ing to win a medal for the coun­try, when you are accept­ing cash for the par­ty and not your­self or when you fudge accounts to pro­tect the so-called inter­ests of the share­hold­er, you are just kid­ding your­self. You are doing it for your­self. You are fail­ing in the face of temp­ta­tion. You are just an acci­den­tal suc­cess that life now must kill.
You have over­stayed your wel­come.

That brings us to a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion. Why can’t these peo­ple, gift­ed in every oth­er way, get it? Why do they lose com­mon sense? Why don’t they fol­low the sim­ple pre­cepts we were all taught as chil­dren? That we should not tell a lie, we should not take what does not belong to us, that hard work must give us the fruits of labour? That we should be nice and polite to oth­ers and most impor­tant­ly, look before you leap.

I always think that there is no greater set of gov­er­nance rules than the Ten Com­mand­ments. For each indis­cre­tion of a Martha Stew­art or our home­made Tele­com Raja, there is a match­ing, sim­ple com­mand­ment that would have helped them reach the Hall of Fame. Instead, they all go over the precipice. The fall is invari­ably a one-way drop.

Over­achiev­ers are very vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple at one lev­el. They can suf­fer from sen­so­ry fail­ure when they can least afford it. From the CEO to the door­man, we are all fac­to­ry fit­ted with the same five sen­so­ry organs. How we deploy them and when we sus­pend them, is a mat­ter of per­son­al choice and that in turn, is influ­enced by the degree of an individual’s self-aware­ness. That is how the seem­ing­ly invin­ci­ble indi­vid­ual one day fails to hear, fails to see what is evi­dent to you and I. If you do risky lend­ing, you may not get your mon­ey back. If you pick up a one-night stand, a page 3 colum­nist may see you. If you accept a bribe once, the bribe giv­er may invite him­self to your home, he may touch your wife in front of you and call her his sis­ter. Inabil­i­ty to see all this com­ing is sen­so­ry fail­ure.

Some­times it is not a one-man dis­as­ter. An over­achiev­er in the com­pa­ny of anoth­er has often suf­fered from false har­mo­ny; has failed to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions and sus­pend­ed the respon­si­bil­i­ty of dis­sent. This has per­pet­u­at­ed in his­to­ry from the Bay of Pigs to Satyam where high­ly accom­plished indi­vid­u­als dug a col­lec­tive grave.

So, what can we all do to save our­selves from the dan­ger that is lurk­ing with­in us? How can we cir­cum­nav­i­gate a temp­ta­tion? Life asks for mas­tery over the self, it does not want to dole that capa­bil­i­ty to every­one. That mas­tery is grant­ed in small and slow mea­sures to those who prac­tice humil­i­ty. Humil­i­ty reduces the nois­es in the head and silences us. In that silence we lis­ten bet­ter, we are able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch what can be poten­tial­ly tox­ic. Life invari­ably shows us a yel­low card; think­ing that it is green is option­al.

Over­achiev­ers that run the course are con­scious to dis­as­so­ci­ate them­selves from their per­son­al suc­cess. They tell you that they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Ask any great mae­stro and she would deflect her suc­cess to her Guru’s teach­ing and his infi­nite patience. As much in the cor­po­rate world as out­side, sus­tained over­achiev­ers take their suc­cess as a respon­si­bil­i­ty; as a bur­den, not an enti­tle­ment. There­in lies the capac­i­ty to keep the feet firm on the ground even as the eyes are set on the peak.

(This sto­ry orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 03 August, 2012 issue of Forbes India.)


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