Are You a High-Need-For-Achievement Professional?

Ambitious, driven, successful...and insecure.

Posted May 18, 2011

My name is Thomas, and I'm a high-need-for-achievement professional. And chances are if you're reading the Work blogs on the Psychology Today website in your free time, there's a good chance that you're a high-need-for-achievement professional as well. Welcome to the club.

High-need-for-achievement may be an unfamiliar term, but you know the type: driven, ambitious, goal-oriented, myopically focused on succeeding, and so on. High-need-for-achievement professionals have a lot of qualities that make them natural leaders: an unflinching work ethic, a healthy sense of competition, and an intrinsic belief in their own abilities. On the outside, we may appear to be confident, unemotional, and highly resilient. But in my own experience, and in my observations of other high-need-for-achievement professionals throughout my career, it's not uncommon for this confidence to be only skin deep.

Just like everyone else, high-need-for-achievement professionals have personal insecurities, feelings of self-doubt, and a desire to be liked and respected by other people. But more so than the average professional, high-achievers have an exaggerated need to maintain their reputations and to project an aura of capability and control. We'll do almost anything to avoid looking or feeling stupid, to avoid changing or stepping outside of our comfort zone, and to avoid the horrifying reality that we don't know everything. These avoidant behaviors are perfectly understandable, but left unchecked they can take us hostage and impede our personal and professional growth.

In my new book Flying Without A Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success, I describe the dominant characteristics of high-achieving professionals, and the fear-based behaviors that often become a roadblock in their working lives. Take a moment to examine the following list of eleven traits that often cause driven professionals problems in terms of career success and satisfaction:

  • Being driven to achieve the task
  • Failing to differentiate "urgent" from merely "important"
  • Having difficulty with delegating
  • Struggling with producer-to-supervisor transition
  • Obsessing about getting the job done at all costs
  • Avoiding difficult conversations
  • Craving feedback
  • Swinging from one mood extreme to another
  • Comparing
  • Taking only safe risks
  • Feeling guilty

As you read through the list, you may have thought to yourself, "I do that." But just because these traits may seem familiar to you, however, doesn't mean that they have to derail your career. In fact, just becoming aware of them will go a long way toward preventing them from doing damage. Once you become more conscious of these tendencies, you'll be able to change your behaviors to more productive ones.

In Part 1 of Flying Without A Net, I discuss these traits and how they often become the Achilles heel of the driven, ambitious professional. I share many stories of high-need-for-achievement professionals like yourself. Some of these stories describe people who are trapped by their anxieties, and some are about individuals who avoid and escape these traps and change in highly productive ways. That's what flying with a net is all about-discovering how to move through the fears that keep you from taking action, and trusting your ability to learn, grow, and change within your chosen profession.