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Managing Mental Health in the Achievement Society
How "can" replaced "should" as the source of our distress, plus an interview with Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever
“I thought for a long time: is it capitalism, or is it my ambition? And I am a very ambitious person,” Mara Glatzel told me a couple of years ago.
That distinction between the narratives of capitalism, individualism, and meritocracy on one side and the drive to create and excel on the other has stuck with me. There’s the compulsion to achieve born from external forces, and then there’s the profoundly human desire to make our mark on the world.
In my book, I make the distinction between striving and growth. Striving, by my account, is a sort of survival instinct. It’s the anxious grasping towards more stability in an unstable environment. It’s that feeling that everything is on the line if you don’t hit that next goal or climb the next rung of the ladder. But growth can happen in many different directions. It’s a natural process that occurs when we interact with the world around us. We can grow tall or grow deeper roots. We can bulk up or send out shoots. They’re all valid forms of growth.
Striving tends to produce anxiety.
I wonder if I’ll ever achieve enough, if I’ll ever feel satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. I worry about what it says about me if I can’t (or just don’t) hit certain milestones or fulfill particular expectations that I’ve internalized from culture.
And I know I’m not alone.
I was already a number of years into unpacking my toxic relationship with goals and achievement when I noticed the launch of The Anxious Achiever, a podcast hosted by Morra Aarons-Mele. And while I knew I wasn’t alone, seeing that show hit the scene, produced then with Harvard Business Review and now with LinkedIn, offered clear institutional proof.
At the heart of the show are critical questions for navigating the 21st-century economy without losing your humanity:
How do you learn to embrace (and enjoy) achieving meaningful things without tipping into feeling compelled to achieve more and more?
How do you deal with mental health challenges in a work world designed to ignore or erase them?
So in this piece, I’d like to tackle these two questions, albeit narrowly—first with the help of philosopher Byung-Chul Han, and second withherself.
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The Achievement Society
At any given moment, there are a dizzying array of potential ideas or projects I could work on. How does one decide what to do now and what to do later? How does one keep from trying to do #AllTheThings at once? And why does this feel like such an existential crisis? Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic but the angst many of us feel—myself included—around these questions is real.
It’s an archetypal experience of the 21st-century economy. We have so many options that choosing always feels like a loss—a loss of opportunity, of possibility, of security.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that we live in an “achievement society.” Instead of being kept in line through the discipline of institutions or the control of surveillance, society is organized through a plethora of possibilities. All of those possibilities don’t necessarily add up to more freedom, though.
Opportunities present themselves more like imperatives than options.
Han contrasts the achievement society with Foucault’s description of the disciplinary society. In a society of discipline, the threat of punishment is used to enforce norms and maximize productivity. Writing in 1975, Foucault describes the culture of industrial and early consumer capitalism. He could see the ways in which work relations and cultural norms were reproduced through institutions like the factory, the church, or even mass media. If one failed to conform to those norms and relations, there was a real risk of becoming a social pariah. The threat of punishment kept most members of society in line.
By the 80s and 90s, though, consumer capitalism had taken on a new cultural flavor.
We were less interested in conformity and more interested in choice.
Or, at least, the perception of choice. As it always does, capitalism appropriated this shift. On the surface, we had more options than ever: women entered the workforce in droves, queer people gained more visibility, more people went to college, and new careers sprang out of new industries. Plus, we had more products to choose from and more ways to signal our identities through what we consumed.
But below the surface, “choice” had become a new paradigm for productivity. While in a disciplinary society, we should work hard to earn a good living, the achievement society exhorts all the things we can do to earn a living. The disciplinary society reminds us that we should buy a house in the suburbs, have 2.5 children, and serve on the PTA. The achievement society encourages us to explore all the possible ways we might live, love, and serve.
Han writes, “The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can.”
That can kept me in line growing up. It kept me achieving all As. It made me pursue excellence in sports and then music. Can convinced me to fill my college semesters with an ungodly number of credits.
And if that sounds like Can is just another form of Should or Supposed-to, that’s because it is. Han says the Can does not “revoke” the Should. Can simply becomes a better, more efficient way to discipline our behavior.
The anxiety of conformity and discipline is transformed into the anxiety of choice and possibility.
That’s not to say we’d be better off with fewer choices! But rather, the perception of unlimited choice obfuscates how we are guided into outcomes that continue to uphold the status quo even in their variety.
Han also sees the impact of the achievement society on our mental health. In the 20th century, psychoanalysts assumed that repression and negation were at the root of psychosocial challenges. They believed we attempt to conquer our desire and tend to unconsciously self-discipline ourselves to conform to norms. And with the puritanical legacy we inherited in the United States especially, that does seem to be a sound conclusion.
But in the 21st century, we deal much less with repression and negation than we do with a surplus of possibilities.
Even as reactionary lawmakers threaten to turn back the clock on our choices, younger generations are still more accepting of a wide variety of identities and ways of being than previous generations. Conditions like general anxiety disorder, depression, burnout, and even ADHD are increasingly seen through a psychosocial context rather than a purely medical one. Han asserts that our “contemporary psychic maladies … result from an “excess of positivity.”
Okay, yeah, I did a philosophical double-take on that one, too.
What he means is that, in different ways, each condition might be seen as a product of the “inability to say no.” “They do not point to not-being-allowed-to-do-anything [Nicht-Dürfen],” he writes, “but to being-able-to-do-everything [Alles-Können].”
Finally, Han describes another familiar complication of the achievement society: the crisis of gratification.
Wait, is that not familiar? Okay, okay—you probably don’t call it a “crisis of gratification.” I don’t, either. But I think it’ll sound familiar once I explain the concept.
Before many cultures became more secularized, various religious teachings offered moral frameworks based on winning the favor of God. They gave relatively clear instructions about what was acceptable and what was not acceptable behavior. Within those teachings, people quite often learned to repress their personal desires and adhere to the rules. They traded earthly obedience for heavenly gratification.
These frameworks started to break down as different moral frameworks came into contact with each other. The “rules” became less clear—and much less like rules. Our values shifted and our beliefs became more inclusive. For many, the promise of ultimate gratification just didn’t hold the same sway. Without that structure, without a clear path to gratification, even if a lifetime away, Han explains that we feel “compelled to do more and more,” chasing acknowledgment and validation that’s no longer available to us in any lasting way.
Mental Health, Achievement, and Work
“My mom always jokes that I was just born this way,” Morra Aarons-Mele tells me. It’s the same thing my mom says about me. I never wanted to sleep, I was hyper-vigilant and motivated by curiosity. Today, though, I wonder how much of my own compulsion to do more and more, as Han puts it, was internalized from external narratives even then.
“I was just a very intense child and toddler, and never stopped,” continues Morra. She describes “the good part” of her anxious ambition as that feeling that the day is packed and full of potential. “The hard and stressful part of it is where the anxiety comes in. The ambition feels like it’s never enough, and it never stops.”
No matter what we attribute it to, possessing the drive to do, explore, and achieve is often a real positive. I can’t imagine my life without it, “but it can also really impact our lives if we don’t acknowledge it and look it squarely in the face,” admits Morra. Many thinkers, across many disciplines, believe that the drive to create is a key characteristic of the human experience. Not only do we make things and ideas, but we also make ourselves.
It’s in the creation—the becoming—that we can easily get caught up in the mess of Can and the conformity of Should. If we don’t acknowledge the structural reasons why we strive, we can get in trouble.
Is this the role you want to play?
Morra admits that she’s really bad at not pushing herself past her limits. “I come from a scarcity model,” she tells me. Growing up, she was the eldest child of a single mom and took on a lot of responsibility to help keep things stable. As a believer in family systems theory, Morra sees herself as having played that role throughout her life. “Most of us just keep playing that role,” she says, “unless we do some hard work to ask ourselves if that’s the role we want to play.” Today, she recognizes that her tendency to push herself is directly related to her childhood experiences.
“If I didn’t seize on an opportunity,” she explains, “I wasn’t going to have enough.”
As a result, Morra often finds herself “in a state of agitation” because she’s said yes “to something that really is too much,” or overwhelming to her when she would have been better off saying “no.” “What I used to do is, I would say ‘yes’ to something, and then I would cancel,” admits Morra. Me too.
I think this is one of the chief challenges for anxious achievers. We want so badly to be able to do the thing that we don’t stop to consider whether we’re able to. We’ve also developed, let’s say, delusions of productive grandeur (otherwise known as internalized ableism). We psych ourselves up as we respond “yes” only to find that we have nothing to give when it comes time to follow through.
Morra would tell herself, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to show up. It’s going to be okay.” But then procrastination and perfectionism (and the anxiety that comes with them) would kick in and she’d cancel. Having lived this pattern my whole life, I could feel my stomach knotting up with somatic recall as Morra spoke.
It would be one thing if canceling actually relieved the anxiety that comes from taking on too much. But there is no relief in backing out of a responsibility—at least not for me. Once I’ve admitted defeat, then new anxieties set in: do they hate me now? Will I ever be able to do something like that? Is this proof that I’m not good enough? Will there ever be another opportunity?
“I’ve really been doing some work in the past year or two,” explains Morra, “trying to say, ‘no’ and trying to flip my inner dialogue to say, ‘Morra, it’s going to be okay. There’s going to be another opportunity.”
This is the perfect example of what Han describes as the efficiency of Can.
Can encourages us to say yes, to fit more in, to see every favor as an opportunity in wait.
But there’s a Should hiding just below the surface of Can. Morra said that she learned scarcity patterns early in life—that if she didn’t seize an opportunity, she wouldn’t have enough. So every request looks like an opportunity, and because she Should seize every opportunity, it implies that she Can.
Ought implies Can is an ethical principle first described by Immanuel Kant. It means that, ethically, if you really should do something, you first must be to do it. I have no ethical obligation to run the race I signed up for if my foot is broken. I’m not a quitter, I’m just injured! Unfortunately, we get this all twisted. Especially us anxious achievers.
When we sense that latent Should, we rationalize our ability to meet the obligation.
If my brain tells me I should run (even if my foot is broken), I’m liable to believe that I can run the race with a broken foot. That’s a silly example, but hopefully, you get the idea.
Here’s another example. The day I speak with Morra, she’s just had an initial consultation with a potential financial advisor. “He was just really doing a bad job,” she tells me. “I actually said to him, ‘you know what? This isn’t going to work for me. Let me give you back your half hour.” And just like that she cut the call short. Of course, ending the call is no small feat. She recalls that, at the beginning of the call, she told herself, “I don’t want to be rude, I don’t want to make him feel bad.” She recognizes the responsibility for his feelings that she took on.
“I was kind of proud of myself,” she said. Honestly, I was in awe.
When the call got started, Morra believed she shouldn’t be rude or make the advisor feel bad by cutting the call short. She could stay on the line for an hour, so she should. Then, she realized this was false. She didn’t have an obligation to manage herself to save the advisor’s emotions, even if every ounce of social conditioning told her otherwise. She can’t manage his emotions so she has no ethical obligation to do so.
How can we manage the tendency to overextend?
Morra tells me she has a 3-part rubric: pace, place, and space.
Each of us has a pace that feels good and reduces anxiety.
And it’s not always slow. This probably won’t surprise you but I’m a fast walker. When there’s someone slow in front of me and I can’t walk at my preferred pace, it’s physically uncomfortable. My mind is fully engaged with managing my speed. And my anxiety begins to creep up on me. Plenty of other people have the exact opposite disposition to their walking pace.
“Pacing,” says Morra, “is about when I come sit at my desk in the morning, what does my ideal day look like?” Some people love meetings and coffee dates—so they work within that very social pace. Others, like me, crave long days with no specific obligations so we can lose ourselves in the pace of deep work. Some people love to be on their feet all day. Others love to work from bed.
Ultimately, the pace that feels good over the long haul is going to be the pace that makes it easiest to take care of yourself. “Even if you are not in a position where you have control over your schedule,” Morra explains, “you have a little bit more control than you think.”
That reminds me of my recent conversation with Needy author Mara Glatzel. Mara suggests looking for those small choices that help you practice meeting your needs. In this case, maybe you look for 5 minutes of the day you can pace yourself. The more you practice noticing and throttling into whatever gear you prefer, the more likely that practice will expand into other parts of your day.
Next up, Morra considers place.
It seems obvious, right? Where you work. But today more people have more choices than ever about where and how they work. At a desk. On a treadmill. In a coffee shop. At a coworking space. In complete silence. With techno music playing. In pajamas. In a suit. “Thinking about place is important because we humans are creatures of routine,” she says. And place helps us build the infrastructure for routine.
Finally, there’s space.
“Space is about managing your energy with people and with demands,” explains Morra. I call it margin in my book. Either way, space helps us remember that we don’t have to go at full capacity all the time. For instance, Morra is currently on tour for her new book, The Anxious Achiever, and during this time, she’s forgoing a lot of space on purpose. “My calendar is your calendar,” she tells people. “There are 3 months in which I’m going to give this everything.”
And she admits that forgoing space may impact her mental health, her family, and her house—among other things. She’s made a trade-off in service of ideas she cares passionately about sharing with others. But even that trade-off wouldn’t be possible without careful management of her space leading up to this hectic time.
“But what about people like me?”
I’d heard Morra talk before about her challenges with social anxiety and extreme introversion. Yet, Morra is out there giving talks, interviewing A-list podcast guests, and making the rounds on her book tour. In what feels like a previous life, I was doing many of the same things.
There were a number of times when I was teaching about social media or podcasting when someone would say to me, “This all sounds great for you, but I’m an introvert. What advice do you have for me?”
Um. I don’t know. I experience debilitating social anxiety—and now I know I’m autistic. I’ve always identified as extremely introverted. So I don’t know what to tell another introvert. Social anxiety, introversion, and the effects of autism are all things I experience off the stage, not on it.
That said, getting on stage always comes with a lot more time off stage. Morra introduced me to an Australian comic named Jordan Raskopoulus, who calls people like us “the shy loud.”
“A lot of us,” Morra explains, “who are introverted and have social anxiety are huge hams and like the spotlight. And I count myself among them.” Me too. The stage is an environment where I know exactly what’s expected of me and that I can deliver on that expectation. But every time I have an opportunity to step on stage, I need to consider what else is required of me before I say “yes.”
There’s also the fact that being an “on stage” kind of person requires a nontrivial amount of social interaction in day-to-day work, too. For me, that means keeping an eye on the balance. To do the on-stage work, I need to perform off-stage work. But too much off-stage work and I don’t have the capacity for on-stage work. “It is this weird dichotomy,” Morra acknowledges. To do work you love, work you really believe in, there is absolutely a degree to which we “suck it up and manage” the work that’s draining. Morra says, “it takes practice.”
“There’s a huge myth that people like us aren’t sparkly,” Morra tells me.
“We can be very sparkly, but if we don’t build in recovering time, if we don’t build in what we need around the sparkly edges,” things get really difficult.
One thing I’m slowly learning is to ask about an event organizer’s expectations of me. Do you need me to be available for the whole event? What time of day do you expect me to speak? Are you looking for an interactive workshop or more of a solo talk? How much do you need to work with me ahead of the event? There are some answers to those questions that are hard stops. But mostly, the answers are just critical to my ability to negotiate an agreement that works for both me and the event organizer. For instance, if you want me to stick around for the whole event, I can do that—but you’ll need to cover my revenue for the month because I won’t be able to do anything else.
I’ve learned to tell event organizers that I need to be the first speaker to reduce the amount of “pre stage” time. A green room can feel like a godsend. I’ve learned to let a few key people know ahead of time that I might be standing in a corner or sitting alone in the hall with my face in my phone so that they can answer questions if they’re asked. And, frankly, I’ve learned to take Sean with me whenever I can. Every introvert should find themselves an extremely extroverted security blanket.
Too often, anxious achievers are working from the scarcity mindset that Morra referenced earlier.
We assume that we can’t negotiate because we might lose the opportunity. We can’t ask for what we need because we might be too much. And I have lost gigs or asked for too much. But more often, I’ve gotten exactly what I need.
We can also fall into the trap of Can. There are lots of things that I can do—tasks that I can perform—that aren’t sustainable or healthy for me. I’m often rendered mute by the bustle of people, the buzz of twenty different conversations, and the mounting social pressure that feels like electricity on my skin. But the can starts to imply the should, and I feel the weight of others’ cans on my own abilities. It can be hard to believe in my own needs. And it’s really difficult for others to take my needs at face value and not assume that I’m being rude or exaggerating my needs.
In all this, it’s possible to take on more responsibility than is ours to take on. I asked Morra how she thinks about what individuals are responsible for and what organizations are responsible for. Unequivocally, she believes “it is not your responsibility to fix the shitty culture that you work in.” Understanding ourselves, our needs, and our own mental health landscape may lead us to difficult choices about where, how, and for whom we can work.
“Data show that a lot of this stuff is extremely systemic,” explains Morra.
“It’s linked to bias, it’s linked to racism, it’s linked to class structures. It’s linked to all of the toxic patriarchy. It’s linked to all of the toxic systems that have created the work world of today.” Being subject to bias fosters anxiety.
And while many companies are investing in mental health support and DEI training to address both issues, those campaigns often fall short of combatting the underlying issues. “The workplace mental health movement is at an interesting intersection right now where you have companies trying to do the right thing,” says Morra. But there are no easy answers. “I worry that buying an app subscription and having a telehealth option lets companies off the hook for doing the really hard work fixing how they work, fixing culture, fixing the always-on nature, fixing poor labor practices, fixing unfair wages.”
“I don’t want workplace mental health to end up like greenwashing. I want it to really help change systems,” she tells me. Morra has a clear and compelling vision for mental health in the future of work. “I want people to stop viewing mental health challenges and weakness or something to be ashamed of. And for that to happen, we have to really start speaking up. And that’s a profound narrative change that has to happen.”
But her biggest wish for the future of work?
“My biggest wish is that people stop acting mindlessly and acting out their anxieties mindlessly on each other because it creates so many problems at work. Anxious managers, anxious leaders, anxious workers bring anxiety and toxic behaviors [to work] that can be stopped if we just take a minute to learn about our mental health.”
To close, I’ll add one thing to Morra’s wish: we must also stop acting out our anxieties on ourselves.
Byung-Chul Han sees the self-harm inherent to living in the achievement society. We compete with ourselves, he writes. I succumb “to the destructive compulsion to outdo” myself over and over. “This self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.”
Han’s work reminds us that it’s not choice or opportunity that’s the problem. It’s the way we let the multitude of choices and opportunities in front of us hijack our mindfulness. We stop thinking critically about our options and succumb to their influence.
In the process, as Morra points out, we can do harm to ourselves, to others, and to the work we love.
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