A lot of life especially when you’re younger is being told what to do, where to go, when to leave, and how to get there.
We’re told to make good grades. To get a job so our parents will be proud. To let our voices be heard on important issues. That our votes matter in electing our country’s leaders. To love and allow ourselves to be loved. To make a difference. To focus on being an achiever. We’re even told that the world is a better place with us in it.
At the same time, we’re told we’re failures if we aren’t successful by 25. We’re not good enough if we don’t have our own start-up by the time we enter college. We don’t have a future if we’re not set on changing the world in some major way. Or that we’ll never make it if we don’t get on the 30 Under 30 List or whatever other list that comes out.
How much pressure do we feel? According to Melanie Curtin, 67% of millennials say they feel “extreme” pressure to succeed. Compare that to 40% of GenXers and 23% of Baby Boomers.
The whole idea that “you haven’t done enough to change the world and it’s getting to be too late for you” is pressure. It’s intense pressure that usually amounts to comparing, contrasting, measuring, looking up to, looking down at, and ultimately for some people giving up.
As if that were not enough, the pressure to live up to someone’s perceived perfect and fabulous standards of achievement results in anxiety, depression, emotional instability, and widespread unhappiness. We stop functioning under extreme pressure and just merely get through if we can.
But how much of that affirmation is really genuine and how much of it is sounds like pressure? I would tend to think not much of it is as sincere as it’s made out to be. Most everyone has an angle from which they’re coming from even if they say they don’t.
So what does all that pressure to be the best, the greatest, the biggest, the fastest, the most perfect, or the smartest do to our psyche?
Some would argue that it serves as motivation, that it induces drive to succeed. Setting expectations seems like the noble thing to do, right? If you have a goal of some sort, you’re more likely to reach it by setting the bar higher. And one of the major signs that you have endured and succeeded under the weight of your lofty goals is that you have accumulated serious material possessions, wealth, and status.
These same people are the ones who advocate for longer work days for adults and longer school years for children. They frighten people by using fear as a weapon for achievement with statements such as, “If you fail this test, you won’t get into a good college” or “If you flunk out of college, you won’t get a high paying job” or “If you don’t spend 18 hours a day at music, art, ballet, football, or gymnastics practice, you’ll never make it into the major leagues of these institutions.”
The “if you don’t, then you’ll never” syndrome is what scares most people. And instead of it being empowering, it’s defeating. Instead of it being inspiring, it’s demotivating. Instead of it pushing us to succeed; it’s causes us to regress and fail. It causes us to struggle to be good more than we have to.
The pressure to succeed feels like giving up. It feels like hopelessness, like blackness within blackness. The air is suffocating and it’s as if you’re falling down a deep hole with no light in sight. I hate to be the one to say it, but some of this pressure is what causes bright young school children and talented young executives to take their own lives because they can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations.
The intense pressure to succeed is often borderline insane. Everyone deserves to pursue their dreams. But at what cost? In the pursuit of our dreams, there are sure to be some bumps along the road. Certainly there are going to be some missed opportunities and moments of indecision. It comes with the territory, unfortunately. But you should never allow people to beat you over the head with it.
When we yield to pressure, it does one of two things. It forces us to be compliant, grit our teeth, smile and bear it or it causes us to turn our backs on possible success and equally possible failure and the joy and shame that go with both equations. Inflated self-esteem quickly turns into a realization of inauthenticity.
Compliance alone replaces critical thinking with textbooks, problem solving with calculators, self-reliance with external expectations, and fortitude with guide books. And what comes out of this is an individual who may be externally successful but is internally breaking down. The idea that being the best and having it all brings some level of true happiness is truly an illusion.
Some pressure is external. In fact, much of the pressure we face is external. But a whole lot of it is internal. More important to pay attention to than what we think others are expecting of us is what we are expecting of ourselves.
The pressure I place on myself to be successful at everything I put my time and energy into is a good thing at times. After all, setting high standards for myself means I believe in me (even if no one else does). But the pressure I put myself under is exactly that: P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E. It’s hard, real, and even brutal. It has me staying up cramming school and work and everything in between into one day, catching three hours of sleep, and doing it all again.
But that stuff catches up with you. And after a while, the next day shows up and you just feel like shutting the door in everyone’s face and sitting on the floor against it. And what happens when things get so blown up? They pop. And when people get under so much pressure? They explode. The key is to find a healthy balance and stick to it.
The point is that it is difficult to do anything worth succeeding at. When we start labeling our achievements with moral value, we’re just putting undue pressure on ourselves. And that’s something we can succeed without.