The Summit Isn’t the Point

You launched it. The thing. It’s one of the most amazing things your company has done in years. It was a huge success. Your inbox is filled with compliments from influential people in the company. Your Facebook post announcing the thing has gotten, by far, the most “likes” and comments since you got married. Even your unemotional dad – who doesn’t have a clue what you actually do for a living – offered “big hugs.” 

There’s only one problem: You feel kind of empty about the whole thing.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

There’s a simple reason you feel this way. It’s a self-preservation tactic based on our belief that whatever the validation, the success, or the win, it’s not reliable. We can’t depend on it. So, it feels like whatever it is – it’s not going to be enough.

This feeling isn’t always associated with the huge, life-changing successes either. To varying degrees, a simple compliment on our outfit, unexpected prizes, good grades, a big raise, or any kind of external validation can generate this feeling. But why? 

Researchers call this summit syndrome. Following some hard-won goal, those with summit syndrome follow an escalating pattern: feelings of emptiness, followed by disorientation about what’s next, and ultimately a decline in overall performance and career-limiting behavior.

I’ve seen what I call “miserable achievers” a few times. One colleague I recently reconnected with worked for a huge technology firm and created a series of masterful marketing initiatives that propelled him from manager to VP within the course of 18 months. In his new role, he ignored his empty feeling and began to work harder and longer to try to duplicate his previous innovation. Within six months, he became convinced that internal politics were stopping him, and he started picking fights with his leadership team. Finally, he began taking calls from recruiters and ultimately took a job at a competitor. 

My colleague’s story has a happy ending. After finding a couple of mentors, he realized he could come off the summit. He now works at an agency, where he’s been an innovation superstar for his clients.  

The key for my friend – and the cure for summit syndrome – is to realize that this emptiness arises because the summit isn’t the point.

Our self-worth must come from the fact that we are already deserving of the summit before we reach it – and even if we never do.

This is something humans have over machines. A machine can only be programmed to accomplish a goal. But we have the emotional intelligence to play just for the sake of playing. We have the ability to give ourselves permission to feel the passion, the joy, and the satisfaction of the task. The irony is that these abilities are what actually gives us the ability to succeed over and over again. 

The moment success becomes possible is when we realize it’s not the point.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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