How to Stop the Cycle of Overachieving

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

You’re loved when you achieve. How many of you listening instinctively shuddered with recognition when you heard me say that sentence? Well, if you were raised in an environment where achievement was important, you may still believe this to be true in your bones. Even if intellectually you know, you’re more than what you accomplish. How do we even learn to become overachievers? And who are we doing it all for, if not for ourselves?

Today on the show, we’re going to unpack the legacy of achievement, anxiety, and finding out what you really want to do with your life with Julie Lythcott-Haims. We’re going to talk about how to separate what you’ve accomplished from who you really are. Trained as a corporate lawyer, Julie started as Dean of Freshmen, an undergraduate advisor at Stanford University, and did that work for more than a decade. She is the author of The New York Times bestselling book, “How to Raise an Adult,” and her TED Talk has been viewed millions of times. She is also the author of “Real American: A Memoir,” where she shares her personal battle with the low self-esteem, which American racism routinely inflicts on people of color.

Julie, were you raised in a household that prized academic and professional achievement?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Boy was I. Let me put it this way, my father had helped eradicate smallpox from West Africa and, by the time I was nine, was assistant surgeon of the United States, all while being an African American male. Meaning, he had just soared over the various hurdles and obstacles society had tried to put in his path. And my mother was getting her Ph.D. in science education while I was in high school, so she had been a teacher and then wanted to get her Ph.D. but was really a full-time homemaker often… And anyway, she was doing classes like thermodynamics and P-chem. I don’t even know what that is, but she’d talk about it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I don’t either.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And she came home once when I was in high school with her report card, if you will, again, she’s getting her PhD, and she says, “I’ve never gotten anything less than an A in my life.” And I was left with the impression that nothing less than an A at all times was required. I’m the youngest of six in a blended family, and I was seemingly the one who was going to be headed toward the Ivy League and so on and so forth. And yeah, they loved me without a doubt, and they didn’t say I had to be a doctor or an investment banker or anything restrictive like that, but it was really clear that there were high expectations that I would do well to meet.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s so interesting you say that. I was reflecting, as I’ve read your work, when you talk about over-parenting and parents being much more explicit in their expectations of their children, I would say that I was raised in a household with no adult supervision. My parents were… I was raised by myself basically, but there was such an expectation of excellence, always. If I did not bring home an A, it wouldn’t even occur to me. It was like, “This is what you have to do.” How are those unsaid expectations even set? Is it by your parents’ own excellence? Is it in the water? Is it just subtle?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I think sometimes it’s very explicit, and sometimes it’s subtle and in the water. But even when it’s subtle and in the water, I think somehow it wins its way into our psyche, and we know that we are loved when we achieve at that level. I think there is some implicit, if not explicit, conditioning of love and acceptance and belonging on us achieving at this level. I’m very competitive… I feel like I’m in therapy … I’m very competitive. I’m type A. I went to a brand-named college, a brand-named law school, became a brand-name corporate lawyer, went on to become a Dean at a brand-name school. Now, I’m an author and speaker, so I’m sort of my own brand finally, which is kind of awesome.

But I was being interviewed for somebody’s book one day about kind of accepting our imperfections, and she was asking me some questions, and I said, “You know what? In my family, we were all really competitive. I learned young, again, the youngest of six, that I’ve got to win games in order to matter to my family. I’ve got to win at hearts. I’ve got to win at spades. I’ve got to win at poker.” These were the games my family played at the holidays, and I just got that message again. It was not explicit, but it was pretty clear. Those who won, those who made the great play or made the great move or won the game were just lauded in the family, and I wanted to be treated that way.

I’m telling this to this author that basically in my family, winning games equaled love, and it plays forward to my present life. Where, as a 50-something with a partner of over 30 years, he and I compete doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. Now, he doesn’t think of it as competing because he’s not competitive, but I can promise you every time I sit down with him, I’m trying to win.

So, I’m having this insight, and I say to this author, “So in my family, winning was love.” And I said, “Oh my God, I have to go tell my husband this.” So I go find him, and I say, “Honey, I just realized that I need to win and when I win at The New York Times crossword, I feel loved.” And he smiled with his beautiful smile, Morra, and goes, “If I just tell you, I love you, should I win? If I just tell you, I love you, is that enough?” And I looked at him, and I said, “Yes.” And sure enough, it has been, he beats me probably… we don’t do it seven days a week, but he beats me four out of five times. But every single time he wins, he looks up at me, he goes, “I love you.” And I’m like, “Thank you.” And I keep going. And it’s just been this profound insight for me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: See it doesn’t… You don’t have to go back to try to have a happy childhood. Being an adult is amazing. I always say that to my kids.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Being an adult is amazing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Being an adult is amazing.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: But you know what? I think a lot of young adults have “failed” to launch in the millennial generation. And I’m saying it in quotes because that’s not my attitude, but the media says that about them. I think to the extent they have failed to launch, it’s because we parents have made adulthood look so unattractive. You and I can sit here and say, “Adulthood is amazing.” And yet too many of us today spend all of our time, our waking moments just hovering over our children, wearing looks of anxiety and concern, acting like taskmasters and micro-managers because they have to get here, and they have to do this, and then they have to do this, and so on and so forth. I think they look at our faces and just think, “My God, being an adult is such drudgery. Why would I ever want to do that?” Frankly, I think it’s true. And I think it’s why they’re delaying having kids or putting it off and sort of not doing it entirely.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well-

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: How depressing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Geez. Well, and also you share a statistic… Or yeah, it is a statistic in your book from Ellen Galinsky, who is a mentor of mine, about how when she asked kids of working parents what they wanted, they didn’t necessarily want more from their parents. They didn’t want their parents to quit their jobs. They wanted their parents to be less stressed about their jobs.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, absolutely. Less stressed about their jobs and less stressed about the act of parenting.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, you became a big deal, corporate lawyer. What was it about that? I take it your dad was a doctor, and your mother was a science person.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: They were.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, why did you become a lawyer?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yes. Well, I think I had to avoid the sciences entirely in order to clear some room for myself in this family, and I never loved math or science in the way that I loved the social sciences. I’m a social justice empath. I believe in the underdog. I root for those who don’t have enough and who need advocates. And that’s why I fell in love with law as an undergrad, and that’s why I went to law school. But I now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that as a 25-year-old woman of color at an elite law school, I was so damn insecure about what others thought of my intellect and capabilities. Even though I went to law school to help humans, i.e. be a public interest lawyer, I left law school ready to help trademarks, copyrights, brands, patents, and so on.

I just chose really badly for myself. I should not have been a corporate lawyer, and I lasted for four years. I was at a wonderful firm, Cooley Godward here in Palo Alto, as the internet was being born. Very exciting, sexy time for intellectual property. I’m a litigator. I’ve got a litigator’s personality. I grew up in kind of an argumentative family. That was just natural. But the work was not an alignment of my values and my skills. I was good at it, and they were kind to me in the grand scheme of corporate law. I mean, I think I had it pretty darn good in terms of how I was treated and the people I worked with, and they were grooming me for greater things, but it was sucking the life out of me one billable hour at a time because I wasn’t on the planet to protect trademarks. I was on the planet to protect humans.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When did you realize that? I mean, was it something that you sort of always knew, but you thought you got seduced by corporate law? How does that happen?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I didn’t realize … The insecurities that I alluded to that made me choose badly were not revealed to me until my 40s when I was doing a lot of work with a terrific executive coach at Stanford who was helping me figure out how to be a better colleague. So, I had to unpack all my stuff, if you will. I didn’t know when I was a miserable young corporate lawyer that I had chosen corporate law, in the first place, to please others. I just thought I was doing what got me the applause and the approval… It felt good. People like, “Oh, you’re a corporate lawyer. How amazing, Oh my gosh.” I’m shopping at Ann Taylor, and I have the Coach briefcase, and I’m making it.

And I really struggled to align this sort of “I’m making it” with the inherent internal sense of, “I can’t believe this is my life.” I am not happy. I started to have high blood pressure. I went to my doctor, I’m probably 26, and she’s concerned about my blood pressure and asked me to get a blood pressure cuff and take my blood pressure five times a day. And then she was very relieved. She’s like, “Okay, you don’t have high blood pressure. You have high blood pressure when you’re at work, what are you going to do about that?” And I was like, “Ah, ah well, what do you mean? I’m good at this, and I’m…” But that was the first indicator, I have to say. My body was telling me this is not what we want.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It always does. The body knows.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The body knows.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But did you feel sort of mental strain and anxiety at the time, or did it feel okay in your head?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I definitely felt mental strain and anxiety, as argumentative as I was and, in some ways, still am. I found the inherent tasks of litigation to be scary, the back and forth, the tit-for-tat. I relished the opportunity to make an argument, an impassioned argument in front of an impartial judge. But psychologically, it was arguing for argument’s sake, and there’s a lot of formalism and formality that just seemed to be like, “Why are we doing this? There’s so much paper. What is the point?”

I lasted for four years. I was at my firm for three years to the day. And then I went in-house at Intel, and I didn’t even know what a microprocessor was. And here I am working for Intel and where I’m protecting Pentium and [inaudible 00:14:26], that was my job to-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Iconic. It’s iconic

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: … protect that trademark around the world. Thank you. Thank you. And it’s an important trademark. And if you’re a trademark lawyer, there are a few brands that at the time were bigger than Intel Inside and Pentium. And yet, I just was withering like, “How did I get so far afield from my own dreams?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s funny. I’m going to interject a little snippet from a letter I got from someone who had read my book, and then I want to pick up on that. And she wrote to me, “I started my first job at a law firm near D.C. And I spend one to two hours every day with my door closed crying. I’ve become stuck in the cycle of living a life that looks good to those looking at me from the outside. And now I have loads of student loan debt.” And she went on, and I mean, it’s interesting how many lawyers have written to me over the years saying, “Help, I’ve gotten into this,” because something about law and in our culture, probably because we all watch so many law TV shows and procedurals and movies, it’s very iconic. It’s a real stamp of success. We all understand that. And yet, I think a lot of really smart people get stuck along the way.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, I think when you’re really smart, you get a lot of feedback from the world about what you should do with your life.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And if you’re smart and like science, they want you to be a doctor or an engineer. If you’re smart and service-y, they want you to be a doctor or lawyer. If you’re great at argument and writing and storytelling, they want you to be a lawyer, it’s-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And who’s they?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Right. They, hmm. Yes, great question.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Besides your super ego, right?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The “they” who judge us, including our super ego, but also often our extended family. Kids today, and back in our day, dread that Thanksgiving dinner conversation with grandpa or Uncle or Aunt so-and-so, who’s going to ask you what your plans are and scold you if your plans don’t comport with their sense of what’s right and wrong.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So you quit. You quit law, you quit corporate law, you quit Intel. Did you tell everyone you were quitting? Did you do it quietly?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Oh, I doubt I was quiet. I’m not a very quiet person. And I really wasn’t quiet then. I didn’t know how to be quiet. I’m an extrovert and an oversharer and all that. I tried to leave corporate after a year. It took me three more years to get out. I kept getting rejected from jobs in academia because I had no skills. I wanted to work with students, and they said, “You don’t have any skills.” And I said, “I’ve been a student, isn’t that enough?” And they’re all, “No, actually people go to grad school to study the thing you want to do.” But ultimately I got a lucky break and filled in for somebody at Stanford Law School who was going on maternity leave. She was the Dean of Students. She had been a lawyer. Here I was, kind of really following that path, and she made it possible for me to cover the maternity leave. And then her plan was to not come back. I didn’t know that. She didn’t reveal that to anybody, which was very wise.

And ultimately, when she did make that call, the Dean said, “She’s not coming back. I don’t want to do a national search. I want to hire you.” I said, “I want to work for you, but you’re going to have to pay me a lot more money.” And that was the empowered litigator-negotiator-lawyer part of me who knew this was my one chance to improve my situation and that of everyone around me, when we are given the job offer, that’s when we have the most leverage. That’s a tiny little piece I managed to bring over.

Yeah. And I told people, I told my boss at Intel. I said, “I think I might not want to be a corporate lawyer anymore. And I have the chance to test drive a new career for 10 weeks, any chance you’ll hold my job?” And she looked me square in the eye-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s wow.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: -that tells you how… I mean, I would have quit had she said, “No,” and I was taking a 33% pay cut to take this temporary job where I would have no health insurance, a COBRA from Intel, where ironically, I had been trying to get pregnant for two and a half years and had failed. And now, I take over this job, COBRA Health Insurance, 10-week job, filling in for someone’s maternity leave, and what happens? I get pregnant.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Of course.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Of course, I got pregnant. Why? Because the body knows. I loved this job. After a day and a half, my body was able to conceive because I was not stressed out of my freaking mind. My boss said, “For your sake, I hope you love this. For my sake, I hope you don’t love this other stuff, Julie…” This was my boss at Intel, an amazing woman named Anne Gundelfinger. She said, “For your sake, I hope you love it. For my sake, I hope you don’t. You’re one of my strongest people. I’ll hold your job.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. But you loved it, you stayed, you grew.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: My job was to care about humans. I got paid to care about law students having walked their path and helping them along the path they intended to walk. My job was to care and to help move obstacles out of their way and to listen well, and it was exhilarating.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s amazing. But at some point, you became worried about them, right?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Oh yeah. Yes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And it’s so funny because when I really looked at your book through the lens of anxiety, anxiety was all I saw everywhere. And it just seemed to permeate the book, anxiety of children, anxiety of their parents, anxiety in the ecosystems that raise kids to be pushed into this “elite world.” It seemed to me that it was just all about the anxiety of trying to get kids to be freshmen at Stanford.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Caveat number one, this wasn’t all my students. Caveat number two, this wasn’t just a Stanford thing. I was seeing at Stanford-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: … a growing number of students who were showing up on our campus in the way students were showing up at hundreds of campuses. This wasn’t just an elite school phenomenon. This seemed to be something that had changed in childhood. And it was basically this, they were more and more accomplished on paper every year, but they were less and less familiar with their own selves every year, which I knew because I made it my job to know them and know what mattered to them and know who they were so I can help them on their path. And they were… They could point to what they’d achieved, they could show off their thick childhood resume, but I couldn’t see the evidence in their eyes that any of that stuff mattered to them.

And eyes are where passion really shows and reveals itself, when you’re talking about some subject matter, some work, something you did that you’re passionate about. If you’re truly passionate about it, your body … again, this is all about the body.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s all about the body.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The body shows it. So, they could smile and say, “Look, what I’ve done. I’m going to do this. I’m so proud.” But I was worried like, “Hey kid, is any of this stuff really your passion, or are you just incredibly good at doing as you’re told?” And I worried that they were doing as they were told, that they were dogs on a leash, and I was rooting for them to have agency in their own lives to figure out, “Who am I? What am I good at? Let me find the intersection of those things and go be that person.”

And over the years, as more and more students showed up with less and less of this agency, because it wasn’t just, “What do I want to do with my life?” It was parents then showing up wanting to argue with professors about grades and wanting to get involved in roommate disputes and wanting to… Always being on top of when their child’s next test was or what their homework was. It was like they were in fourth grade or kindergarten, but here they were at an elite college. And I kept… I almost had that Macaulay Culkin Home Alone face, my hands on either side of my face going, “What is happening?” Because all I could think was, “Yo people, these “children,” as you insist upon continuing to call them, could be in the Marines right now or working a full-time job. And instead, they’re here, and we’re delighted to have them, but you are infantilizing them.” And I became worried for the sake of the individual student and for the sake of them generationally. What’s to become of America if the next generation doesn’t want to #adult?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What I want to drill down on, and I actually see it from a… I’m in a good mood today, so I’m seeing it from a joyful place, and maybe this is part of “becoming an adult,” is that process of understanding the difference between what you’ve accomplished and who you are, as you so eloquently put it. But also, who you want to be and what you want to accomplish as opposed to what you’ve always been shouted into doing. That process is so beautiful, if you can survive it.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a process. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly before it’s beautiful. And I think we’ve all got to go through it. I mean, there is some bit of a Maslow’s hierarchy here. We are talking about people who inherently have shelter, food safety, and their basic needs are met, and they can actually spend more time in the higher end of the hierarchy dwelling upon, “Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want? What kind of life do I want to lead? What am I good at? What do I love? Am I going to find the guts to do those things, regardless of what my extended family or entire ethnic community or peer group or society tells me I should?” It is definitely the process of forging a self. And I have borne witness to, I want to say thousands, I think it is accurate to say, thousands of people.

I have borne witness to thousands of people in the act of becoming themselves. And it is such a sight to behold, and it is profoundly beautiful. I 100% agree with you. Can I go back to the anxiety? Because I didn’t really address that-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah, please.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: There’s anxiety everywhere. And I think you’re 100%, right. We parents today have way too much of our sense of self caught up in who our kids are. It’s … my ego needs you to know what my kids have accomplished today so that you might think well of me today. It’s very… The gradations are day by day. It’s about how my kid did on this quiz, how my kid performed in today’s game, as opposed to the bigger picture or long-term, “My kid is a good person,” or, “My kid worked hard and persists and achieves over time.” It’s all in the moment, and it’s almost like they are our dog in the Westminster Dog Show, and we are the one that’s going to walk home with the trophy for what they’ve done.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about the transformations that you have helped people make, when they realized that they could be who they were, not just their accomplishments. But also I think that all of us who get to college, we are intrinsically motivated by something. It may not be what we’ve gotten to college to study, but we are motivated. There is something in us that we love to do and can do amazingly well. What is the process? What have you seen in a common thread when someone is feeling capable? I have passion. I have skill. I have talent. I may not be a biochemist after all, I don’t actually want to be, but I’m going to be something amazing. What’s the first step?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So I’m going to disagree with your second premise.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Please.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: That everyone who makes it to college, or college like the ones we’ve attended, are intrinsically motivated by something. I think many of them are extrinsically motivated by the desire for approval.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes, absolutely. I’m not doubting that.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So, they are. That’s not intrinsic, that’s extrinsic.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: No.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So, what we want is to move them to, okay, well, what if no one was judging you? What if you could do what you wanted? What if it was just up to you? And this is where I would be basically rooting for the minor. And here’s what I mean, students would come to my office hours. I would be getting to know them. They would say, “Oh well, I’m majoring in econ,” and they’d smile in that sheepish way or shrug their shoulders. And that was their way of saying, “Because I have to.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Or if econ, premed, engineering, whatever, the three or four acceptable majors. And then they would say, “And I’m minoring in film studies. I’m minoring in English literature. I’m minoring in photography. I’m minoring in whatever.” And I would beam when I heard about the minor, and I always thought it was my job to elevate the status of the minor because the minor was often where the student’s actual sense of self was. “If I could do anything, I would…” I had a student who said, “I’ve been through the course catalog…” This is actually a slightly different story, but I’m telling you anyway, “I’ve been through the course catalog. I’ve crossed out everything that doesn’t appeal to me. Unfortunately that leaves 85% of the majors. I’m really having a hard time figuring out what I’m going to major in.”

I was like, “Okay, Jeff, well, that’s awesome that you’re interested in so many things. Tell me more.” “Well, I love philosophy for this, that, and the other reason,” he would tell me, “And I’m interested in psychology for this reason. I love photography, but frankly, the photography department here, I don’t think is very strong,” he told me. And so, he’s just going on and on, and I’m listening, and I’m grinning because I’m listening to a young human who’s clearly just aware of who he is. And his challenge is how do I choose? How do I narrow? How do I figure this out?

At some point, I asked a very cliché question, “Do you have a dream job when you picture a dream job? Do you have any idea what it looks like?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, I want to be a photographer for National Geographic.” And I was like, “Awesome. Okay.” We continued to have conversations over the years, and he decided on a major, and frankly, I don’t know what it was. And it turns out, it really isn’t about your major. It’s about what skills you’ve acquired and what topics you can talk about. This guy took his camera, went to photograph glacial melting, basically with time-lapse photography, created a film on glacial melting called Chasing Ice, and sold that to National Geographic.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: That is an example of a kid who was unencumbered by other people’s expectations. He knew that photography was a legitimate pursuit. When so many of his peers were like, “Oh, I can never major in that. My parents would disown me.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was he born that way? Did he have amazing parents?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I don’t know.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was he independently wealthy?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I don’t know.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, because-

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I think he was independently wealthy.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because the other thing that strikes me as a listener… A lot of our listeners, like I am often, are struggling, and they may be sitting at their desk thinking, “Oh well that’s great for him. Like he was born knowing he wanted to be a photographer. I don’t know what that special thing is in me. I’m sitting here at a law firm. I hate it, but I don’t have a passion.”

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Right.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And then they might feel even more depressed.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And when I left my law firm, I went around and said goodbye to everybody. And many people said to me, “I envy you for knowing what you want.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And this was when I was leaving for Intel. It was hardly what I wanted in the grand scheme of life. But it was definitely going to be better just having one client, Intel, than having dozens of clients being at a firm. Here’s how I helped young people think it through. I always thought it’s not for me to give you answers. I can’t tell you whether to major in econ or history or psychology or mechanical engineering. I don’t know the answer to that, only you know, nobody knows the answer but you. There is no right answer except the one that is derived from your own interrogation of yourself.

I was trying to help students listen for their inner voice, which is often a voice that shows up in a stomachache. It’s a voice that shows up in stress and anxiety. It’s that body saying, “I am not okay with this.” And on the positive side, it’s that voice going, “Oh, I really love it when… I really am excited when…” I try to get them to tune into that inner voice. And I would say, “Try to discern it from the cacophony in your head of other people’s expectations. You are not here to lead someone else’s life. And the more you get familiar with your own voice, the more you learn what it sounds like, the better you will be able to hear it as it continues to speak to you. And then as you finally hear that voice, the next step, which is probably even harder, is finding the courage to honor what it tells you.”

These are all choices. How much money you need to survive on is, at a certain level, choice. We choose the communities we live in. We choose to live in a community where the median rent is this, and the median mortgage is this. We’re making choices constantly, and when our inner voice starts to really back in and say, “You know what? This life will feel good and true if I am doing the following with it,” we’re able to be braver about, “You know what? I can’t live here, and I’ve got to move to such and such,” because that’s the fertile ground for you to plant your dream in.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question is, what is inner voice training 101? I think a lot of us get really good at turning off that voice.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, it’s funny, but I’m going to go back to a concept we’ve named already between us three or four times, which is the body. The body will tell us how we’re doing before the brain can register an analysis of it and a labeling of it. The body tells us. If you’re trying to discern your inner voice, I’m recommending that you develop a mindfulness practice where you let the clues from your body grow clearer by noticing them.

This is what I did through the help of my amazing coach, Maryellen Myers, who really helped me turn things around in my 40s. She helped me sort of start to pay attention to, when are you feeling an emotion? When are you getting upset? When are you getting really passionate? Let’s see if you can notice it happening so that then you can decide what you want to do with it, if anything.

And I began to notice that when I was feeling frustrated, my voice got really gravelly. I already have a low voice, but when I’m feeling pushed to my corner or in fight-or-flight mode, I have a voice that’s a whole register deeper and gravelly, and my mouth gets dry. And I started to be able to notice the feeling of my blood pressure rising. I actually learned that back as a lawyer, starting to pay attention to that. But anyway, the body starts to reveal. And if you take an interest in that and have this mindfulness practice, you can say, “Hey wow, I’m feeling really stressed right now. I’m feeling afraid. What just happened such that I’m feeling this way?”

I mean, I’m talking about negative things, but this also works for positive things. I’m feeling amazing. I’m feeling really joyful. I’m feeling gratitude. What’s going on? Oh, it’s this, it’s because I just did this. Oh, it’s because I just had that conversation, or I just did this work. Let the body be the little clue giver to you about what you really want, whether it’s something you desire or something you’re afraid of. Pay attention to what the body’s signaling to you and start to process it analytically, and you’ll be much more in tune with yourself.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you liked what you heard, please leave us a rating or review and tell your friends. If you have an idea for a show or would like to send me feedback, you can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com. You can send me a tweet @MorraAM or send me a message on LinkedIn.

Special thanks to the team at Harvard Business Review, and this week to Amanda Kersey. Thanks to my amazing producer, Mary Dooe, Anne Saini, Colin Howarth, Adam Buchholz, and the team at HBR. And our music, if you like it, is from Signal Sounds NYC.

From HBR Presents, this is The Anxious Achiever, and I’m Morra Aarons-Mele.



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