From serving in President Bill Clinton’s administration to founding her own executive search firm and writing the bestseller Limitless, Laura Gassner Otting has a killer resume. But as she accumulated these accomplishments — including a TED Talk with over a million views — it left her feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled.
It also left Gassner Otting with the idea for Wonderhell. She spoke with b. about how high achievers can find equally high satisfaction.
b.: How common are the kind of psychological issues that can lead to this “no amount of success is ever enough” feeling?
Otting: Throughout the more than 100 interviews I did with glass-ceiling shatterers, Olympic medalists, and start-up unicorns, I was stunned at how universal the emotions were of anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, impostor syndrome, exhaustion, and burnout. The manifestation of many of these emotions became a fear not just that there would never be enough, but also that the time was now to make their money.
But I was also impressed that every single one of them also came to the other side of it — usually after life beat them down enough times — to realize that there would never be enough, and that they had to start measuring success in different ways.
In a three-year study we ran [with] almost 6,000 responses from 74 different countries … we found that, in fact, only 37% say that the most important thing about a job is that it pays enough to give them the lifestyle they want; whereas 95% want their work to be part of what inspires them to get up every morning… This wasn’t some “pandemic revelation” [since] the numbers from 2019 mimicked the same numbers we saw in 2020 and 2021.
The classic advice for lifestyle inflation is to avoid buying fancy new things as soon as your income grows, because you’ll get used to them and want fancier ones. Is there a mental equivalent to stay grounded?
Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell coined the “hedonic treadmill” more than 50 years ago, a term which described the idea that [new possessions] provide only a temporary respite and no permanent gain in happiness. Similarly, the idea that we’ll “be happy when…” sets us up for this same empty pursuit.
It is exacerbated by the fact that, all too often, the goals that we are chasing have been placed in front of us by others. … We can’t be insatiably hungry for someone else’s goals, so if all we are doing is checking off boxes, we end up with a full checklist but an emptiness inside.
You write about three kinds of perfectionism (“self-oriented,” “other-oriented” and “socially prescribed”), but only the first is healthy. How can perfectionists identify whether they have the productive or destructive variety?
First, we need to drill down to our motivations. If we are motivated to be perfect because we want to live a carefully curated life or we want to please others (socially-prescribed perfectionism), then it is likely that these tendencies are extrinsic.
Second, we can look outside of ourselves. Those with other-oriented perfectionism tend to be judgmental and critical of other people’s performance, holding them to exceptionally high standards, and micromanaging them to avoid mistakes — which often leads to strained relationships at work (and home). There is an old saying that goes that if every relationship you’ve had has failed, perhaps the problem is you?
However, if our motivations come from within (self-oriented perfectionism), from a goal that actually matters to us, then they are intrinsic, and the pursuit of them brings us satisfaction and not simply self-harm.