Performance Compulsion Syndrome: Enemy of Success

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We live in a hyper-competitive society. Most people want to achieve sky-high levels of success while dreading the very thought of failure. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. However, in order to avoid failure and achieve success, many people take the path of overwork, which is different from working hard. Rather than helping people be successful, overwork tends to become a life-long prison whereby people trade safety for actual success. They cling to a misled sense of “being productive” while forgoing actual self-realization. I have called this phenomenon Performance Compulsion Syndrome.

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Performance Compulsion Syndrome can be defined as the impulse to work long hours, day after day, having mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion as the only acceptable limits. This syndrome goes hand in hand with the belief that resting is the same as being negligent or weak. I have seen people fall prey to this syndrome countless times during my career. When they do, their lives become consumed by a series of overwhelming obligations with little personal or professional gain. In fact, I myself have been a victim of Performance Compulsion Syndrome. At the end of this post, I will share the one tool that has helped me keep myself in check so I can work hard while not overworking compulsively.

Observed Cause: Fear of Failure

Performance Compulsion Syndrome usually develops from fear of failure. In order to avoid failure, some people overexert themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically to the verge of self-abuse, which, in itself, is already a form of failure. Interestingly, fear of failure takes two distinct forms depending on the individual’s personality. Some people overwork in order to avoid the guilt that comes with failure; others overwork to avoid the shame that comes with it. Let us explore each type of people in further detail.

Those who overwork to avoid guilt believe that whenever they do not achieve a certain goal is because they did not work hard enough. This is why they become obsessed with perfection and flawlessness just so they can avoid failure and be guilt free. In fact, whenever they actually achieve a goal, they feel more relieved for having avoided failure than happy for having achieved their goal.

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On the other hand, those who overwork to avoid shame see work as the ideal vehicle to stand out and be proud. They will do anything to gain people’s approval and admiration, thus avoiding shame. In fact, whenever they actually achieve a goal, rather than  feeling happy, they will tend to feel anxious over the possibility of people no realizing their achievement.

Observed Long-Term Result: Failure

As stated before, people affected by Performance Compulsion Syndrome usually achieve their goals at a high emotional and physical cost. However, whenever the syndrome reaches neurotic levels, the ultimate irony manifests itself in which the compulsion for performance only causes failure. Excess work, lack of rest, and accrued stress engender erratic behaviors which inevitably lead to mistakes, sometimes irreparable ones.

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The syndrome in question makes it impossible to devote time to solving complex problems. People suffering from this syndrome have difficulty making a temporary pause in order to look at complex problems from the outside, analyze them properly, and seek the necessary resources to solve them for good. Instead, they try to solve complex problems on the fly while still performing their daily tasks. This hinders their ability to understand the problem at hand in detail and leads them to apply the wrong solution. As a result, problems gradually get worse until they become unmanageable. This makes it virtually impossible to avoid failure in the long run.

Finally, the syndrome in question diminishes people’s ability to establish long-term, functional relationships within their families and society in general, which gradually makes them feel lonely, disoriented, and unhappy.

The Other Side of the Coin: Mediocrity

Like any other pattern of behavior, Performance Compulsion Syndrome has its antithesis. In the midst of a hyper-competitive society, there are other people who, in order to avoid the grueling demands of overwork, choose to follow the path of mediocrity. They apply the principle of least effort and adopt a conformist attitude. They do it based on the mistaken belief that they are avoiding unnecessary problems. However, there is nothing further from the truth. While Performance Compulsion Syndrome hinders people’s ability to solve complex problems, mediocrity is the source of most such problems. While overworked people may be too tired and overwhelmed to see the way out, mediocre people are too lazy to get up and walk out. In this regard, the latter is worse than the former.

Performance Compulsion Syndrome and mediocrity are the two opposite extremes of the same spectrum. Neither one offers a long-term, feasible strategy for life and work. In the middle, however, lies a sustainable option that uses work as a vehicle to dignify the soul, stimulate the mind, make profit, and contribute to society. This option is finding your passion. As Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do”.

The Solution: Find Your Passion

There is a big difference between people who work hard out of love for what they do and people who overwork out offear of failure. The former become energized by their jobs while the latter become weakened by them. When people find their passion, fear of failure is no longer the main fuel for their actions. The quest for self-realization will always supersede the avoidance of failure.

In fact, some people are so passionate about their jobs that, to the untrained eye, they may seem to suffer from Performance Compulsion Syndrome. However, after a closer examination, we can see that they enjoy every second of it while also having time and energy to share with their families and friends. This does not mean they do not experience exhaustion or frustration or stress. It just means they experience all that while also enjoying what they do. A higher purpose is always present. Passion is their real driver, not fear.

What do you think?

What does work mean to you? Have you ever felt suffocated by your job not so much because of its nature but because of the way you experience it? Is there any activity, craft, or profession you are passionate about? How do you think people suffering from Performance Compulsion Syndrome experience the 7 keys to success? How do you think people suffering from this syndrome experience the difference between knowledge and consciousness?


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