Lessons Learned from High Achievers

Or…”What got you here, may not get you there.”

Think back through your academic and professional careers to the wide variety of glowing descriptors peppering your evaluations, letters of recommendation, and cards of praise and gratitude from patients and others whose lives you have touched. Most high-achievers become so used to praise and superlatives that they tend to discount their value. And most work in environments surrounded by others from the thin end of the bell curve, skewing the immediate norms for brilliance and dedication.

I have had the privilege of working with high-achievers in multiple industries and many share a number of strengths that propelled their advanced educations and positions. Yet as I conduct workshops and coach we often discover how those very characteristics that supported their motivation and performance can sometimes undermine their best potential or happiness.

A number of leadership assessment tools bear out that our innate strengths, personality types, and behavior and performance styles do have shadow sides. Sometimes they limit our perspective or our ability to maintain balance or interact more effectively with differing types. In coaching we work to build the self-awareness of our ideal operating styles and patterns to create optimal performance that is maintainable for personal excellence, effectiveness, deep satisfaction, and health.

Below is a list of common strengths followed by some of the risks these strengths may raise. And no question, these are the very attributes fueling excellence and, but take an honest look at some of the shadow sides of these strengths, many of which overlap. Anything resonate for you, or perhaps someone observing, knowing, or loving you?

  1. FOCUSED ON THE GOAL -After all, how can you achieve if you don’t have goals?

    • Takes self out of the action plan, forgetting strong, centered self is key to successfully meeting goals

    • Loses awareness of self-care needs in pursuit of goal (We don’t know any doctors who could take better care of themselves, do we? )

    • Rationalizes for the sake of the goal (Denial anyone?)

    • Misses out on learning from and enjoying the process on the way to goal


  • Tends toward unrealistic expectations that support poor time and energy management

  • Can create stress for others (Be honest!)

  • Struggles with compromising when appropriate

  • Creates more stress, overactive inner critic chatter, and personal disappointment

  1. PERFECTIONIST (Like there’s something WRONG with that?!)

  • Develops strong inner critic

  • Limits access to career and personal satisfaction

  • Limits creativity

  • Increases need for control, limits effective delegation

  • Decreases ability to compromise when appropriate

  • Can compromise relationship

  1. GIVES 110%

    • Gets stuck in all-or-nothing mentality (I can’t tell you how often this manifests in exercise choices in high-achievers!)

    • Sacrifices effectiveness for determination

    • Gets addicted to busy-ness

    • Loses the white space needed for critical thinking, creativity

  2. INDEPENDENT (MD’s tend toward high autonomy scores.)

    • Loses social connections and support

    • Has difficulty asking for help (Sound familiar, cultural norm?)

    • Delegates poorly

    • Discounts effectiveness of others and team


    • Loses personal awareness of physical, mental, emotional state or needs

    • Challenged to maintain healthy eating, exercise, sleep and renewal habits

    • Compromised by fatigue – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually

    • Loses the balance and grounding of social connection or extracurricular pursuits


    • Too focused on possible problems, misses possibilities

    • Negatively biased (Yes this is a good thing in differential diagnosis, but not in people management!)

    • Catastrophizes

    • Can’t let the guard down to relax


    • TYPE A all the way!

    • Develops a mentality of having to “deserve” self-care

    • Loses ability to live in the moment or experience joy


    • Begins to seek chronic distraction

    • Becomes data dependent or gets decision paralysis (Yes, data is good, but in some settings so is wisdom and intuition and knowing when you have enough data to make the wisest decision.)

    • Stressed by information overload

    • Chronically feels pressure to do/know more

  7. THRIVES UNDER PRESSURE (My favorite comment from high-achievers, so many of whom are performing well, but not really thriving.)

    • Learns to ignore/deny warning signs of too much stress (Ask you nurse, spouse, or child when you are stressed- they often know before you do!)

    • Loses ability to say no and focus efforts in line with values and mission

    • Becomes deadline dependent, procrastinator, adrenaline junkie

    • Drives others over the edge!

Where might you smile at yourself and consider dialing it back just a touch to reach your optimal performance with resilience and sanity… and maybe the happiness of those around you?

Continue to be your best, do your best, set lofty goals and go for it, but with the self-awareness of what your ideal.


Dr. Ackrill is a Human Performance Consultant, Coach, and Speaker President of WellSpark.

Dr. Ackrill works with professional leaders and teams to expand performance capacities and resilience. With the latest science and research, she provides innovative ways to optimize energy, creativity, focus, and access to brilliance for enhanced, sustainable performance. Her work includes the systematic management of stress, addressing specific lifestyle/health risk challenges, facilitating behavior change, and creating collaborative cultures to support excellence. She coaches individual leaders, their teams, consults on wellness programming, organizational effectiveness, and cultural shifts, and speaks at off-sites and conferences.

Cynthia L. Ackrill, MD brings a unique and thorough background to the subject of health as a business strategy and the power of mission and values based leadership. She combines her knowledge as a primary care physician with her extensive experience in neuro-psycho-physiologic approaches to behavior, performance, and health, and her training in coaching. She is a graduate of Duke University and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a Fellow of the American Institute of Stress, a charter member of HeartMath, and a former board member of the International Society of Neurofeedback and Research. A certified Wellcoach® and Well People coach, and certified Professional/Executive coach, Dr. Ackrill has also completed training in positive psychology, intrinsic motivation, and peak performance coaching. She enjoys the “diagnosis” of systemic issues and facilitating groups toward mutuality of purpose and is a certified Team Advantage leader.


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