A High Performer or a Workaholic?

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I read this article about the differences between high performers and workaholics a few months ago. It’s stuck with me ever since — mostly because it made me wonder if I’m secretly a workaholic.

I like to think of myself as a high performer. I sometimes work long hours, and lord knows I travel a lot. But I am also pretty good at setting firm boundaries. I will table things for later if there is no way we’re going to finish them that day. I will put my phone away when I get home. I turn off Outlook alerts when I’m on vacation (or at night/on the weekend if I need some space). I’ve said no to weekend work when I needed that time to myself. I am pretty damn good at my job, but there are other things going on in my life, and I give my family and down-time the priority that they deserve.

But I am also not so great at that whole “internal validation” thing that the article’s author talks about.

A few months ago I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, also known as “being so ignorant that you don’t even know what you don’t know.” It’s likely one of the reasons that your most obnoxious coworkers won’t listen to reason. The opposite of blissful ignorance is called Imposter’s Syndrome. This is what happens when you know so much about a subject, you are painfully aware of just how much you still have to learn.

I often have to remind myself that I’m good at my job. I open up old code to make changes for a customer and say, “Dammit, I should have done these three things completely differently.” And then I have to remind myself that this is actually a good thing. In the six months since I put it all together, I’ve improved. I’m better than I used to be. This means I’m learning and growing. Me from six months ago wasn’t a nitwit. It’s just that me of today is smarter.

So, yeah, it does make a difference when I get positive feedback. That email from a client saying what an outstanding job I’ve done. That stray comment from a colleague about how I’m killing it today. The reassurance from a fellow programmer that I may have muffed something, but it’s only because I’m learning something new and extremely high level. It makes a difference to my self-perception, and it would be silly to pretend that it didn’t.  But I also have that internal drive to learn new things and to get better.

A lot of people I know who are at the top of their game feel the same way. They are constantly trying to figure out how they can do things better. They don’t want to settle for what they can do now. They want to know how they can push the envelope just a little bit more. It makes them good at what they do. But, if you don’t know when to say “ok, that’s enough for today” it can be exhausting.

In the end, I think that being a high performer and not a workaholic comes down to choices. We choose to accept that the work will still be there tomorrow. We choose to put our phones away. We choose to prioritize friends and family. The Sorting Hat put Harry Potter in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin because Harry made that choice. Our choices make us who we are.

And, with that, I choose to put my laptop down and go play with my daughter.