A few months back, I had a conversation with a buddy of mine that has echoed in my mind ever since. We discussed the question of whether or not we felt like we were underperforming or overperforming at life. It seems like a pretty straightforward question, but the implications of what I learned through that conversation are something I still find myself wrestling with daily.
The way this topic came about, was I was expressing my discontent with my current state. My friend shared with me that he had recently asked two of his close friends before our discussion whether or not they thought he was underperforming or overperforming in life. The responses he received were interesting.
The first of the two said that they thought he was over-performing. This friend cited facts like how he had spent more than a decade living and traveling abroad, seen and experienced so much, learned so many interesting skills, and developed so many hobbies, all while maintaining his freedom and avoiding the slide into the rat race and materialism that plagues typical Americans. This friend also mentioned that he may be underperforming in his career, but that was justifiable because the sacrifices in career advancement had been in the name of life experience. He thought that his career might have been further along had he stuck it out in his prior banking role and climbed the corporate ladder. The potential was there, but there had been tradeoffs made for an interesting and adventurous life.
Then the same question was posed to a different friend. The results? Exactly the opposite.
Friend number 2 cited a divorce, lack of family connection, lack of home ownership, lack of deep connection to community or depth of friendship. This friend felt that a life of traveling and adventure had led to selfishness and an inability to really put down roots in any particular place. While life had been fun, it lacked the deep meaningful relationships that are important for long-term happiness. He felt that when it came to his career, he had landed on his feet and gotten a good opportunity that fit his skillset. He was overperforming in his career.
This feedback was tough to hear.
So, who was right? I think they were both right… and wrong. But how should one feel after receiving this feedback?
While reflecting on the conversation, two points became clear. The first is that whether or not you are overperforming or underperforming has a minimum of two dimensions to it. The first is talent, the second is values. If you are perceived as someone who has a high level of natural ability, then it is possible that you would be perceived as underperforming if things have not always gone your way. If you are perceived as having low levels of talent, then it might be perceived that you are overperforming if things have worked out well for you. So, do you want to be perceived as overperforming? Wouldn’t that mean that the perception is that you had reached above your natural ability? Does this mean that your assumed natural ability is less than your performance?
The second is that with an open-ended question like performance level, it becomes more of a reflection of the judge’s values than it is of the individual’s actual performance. What I mean is that while the first friend valued adventure, travel, learning, and novelty, the second friend valued family, connection, and putting down roots. These two value structures provide completely different lenses through which one can look at life. So whose lens matters? Should it be only our own value structure that counts? Should we consider the values of our spouse or our family? Are we confident enough to care only about our own values? Do our values sometimes make us miserable because what is important to us, is not where we are excelling?
These past few days, I have been thinking about how these concepts can be used to figure out what you truly value. Not what you think you value. Many people assume that we value the things that we spend time on, but I am not convinced this is true. I know that most of the people who spend time scrolling on their phones would say that they value their families more than they value the dopamine hits from the latest meme.
Recently, when I think about my life, I have this sickening feeling that I am underperforming in nearly every aspect. I feel that I have not reached my potential in any area of life and that I am leaving a ton on the table as I go to and from my daily grind. I feel that I have been given much in terms of natural talent, but I have not yet leveraged my gifts to accomplish anything that feels meaningful or sufficient in scale. I am not particularly proud of what I have been able to accomplish in the last 10 years of my life.
I have thought about changing my lens and looking at my life in terms of where successes have been had. To try and frame it all in the context of time allocation. That I have selected to use my time in particular ways. That it might be meaningful to put a well-cooked meal on the table for my family and share that time with them every evening. Do I really value that for myself? Does that bring me fulfillment? I do not get the feeling that it does. No matter how well I balance my time, I crave being out of balance for the sake of a goal or a dream. I miss working on a project with global-scale potential. I miss reaching my peak performance in the pursuit of an arbitrary goal. I miss having a team that I am responsible for leading and inspiring. I miss being proud of sharing what I am working on and the way I am chasing my dreams. I miss the feeling that what I do with my time matters.
The strange thing is that people tell me all the time that the work I do matters. They thank me and they recognize me. But the crazy part is that I don’t feel it.
I truly miss the feeling of doing my best at something, unlocking new limits to my potential, and having a singular focus.
Maybe the issue is that I have experienced new bests in so many different aspects of my life. I want to combine them all. I want to be winning physically, career-wise, socially, financially, familial-ly, etc. I want to experience them all at once and in a sustained way. I want to have hobbies, time, and fun, but also to have success financially, career developmentally, and be building a legacy that I feel matters. However counter-culture it may be, the success or failure of my offspring is unfortunately not enough for me at this time. I miss the days when I looked into the future and anything was possible. It seems that life commitments are dragging my dreams away, and I am unsure what I can do to reignite the flame that once burned so bright. I want it all… and because of that, I feel I am getting nothing…