Untangled, Part I: The Right Stuff

“A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher...” Tom Wolfe, from the book, "The Right Stuff"

I’m in 8th grade history class. I read the latest assignment, have a spark of an idea to write about the estates of the Founding Fathers, and decide I’d draw each of their estates and discuss their architectural significance as well. Above and beyond. Overachiever? Maybe. But I wasn’t motivated by a higher grade, nor would I get any extra credit on this project. I just needed to do it. It wasn’t a question. It was a best yes, before I even knew what one of those was, and I was young enough at 12 years old to just listen to the voice inside instead of question her every word.

Not every academic, creative, or professional endeavor of mine fell victim to the above and beyond syndrome, although a lot of them did. Alternating hot and cold, if I wasn’t all in, I was sickeningly apathetic. To this day, those moments of apathy make me feel ashamed. I wasn’t even close to my best.

Clearly my life was about to head into two different directions: desolate apathy or full-blown obsession with achievement. The latter won over, shut down the inner voice that so wisely knew the best yes when she saw one and didn’t care about the human cost. This was my ticket out. It was my ticket to freedom. It was my ticket for choice. It was my ticket for personal power. These are all Good Things.

Unbeknownst to me, obsessive achievement was also the first class ticket to my soul falling off a metaphorical cliff. My Untangling. Now that I can look back, I know that my soul had to die, but if I had known this at the time, I may have made a different choice. I am human; I’m conditioned to run away from pain and suffering. Eventually, I would become untangled. We all must become undone in some way.

The tickets to Good Things and My Untangling served me for a very long time. I am only here today writing this because I have tried on many masks and failed my intuition in a rather epic fashion. I’m a product of my mistakes disguised as success. I am not being hard on myself; success defined by someone else is my soul’s epic failure. I did some Good Things. I am a Good Thing. I was always there under the mask, of course.

And thus, my resume was built. It is a solid resume: full of speaking engagements at conferences, publications, a high GPA, projects done right and on time, a large influential network, creative solutions to challenging problems. Working crazy hours at a full-time job and staying up until the wee early morning hours working on starting my own business. And my personal life? I was a great wife and good friend, above and beyond. I was working out every morning at 6 am, doing the tough workouts that my friends thought were crazy. I’m not sure I slept very much and I cannot tell you what I was eating because I don’t remember. I was going above and beyond because, as I would say, I don’t do mediocre work. (Yikes.)

I had the right stuff. It was, as Tom Wolfe points out, like a “dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones”. But, wait. Who was I trying to impress?

My executive coach that I had hired because I was starting my own business was an extremely high-achieving woman with a worldly and impressive business. I don’t hire mediocre people, either. She took one review of my resume and said, “I have no edits. This looks great. But, I know you can do all of this stuff. I know you’re excellent at what you do. I’m not worried about that. Who are you and what do you want to be?” Well, if that isn’t a truth bomb, what is? She wasn’t alone: my mentor warned me, sternly, of the human cost to myself of what I was doing. My mentor saw the coming storm before anyone else.

Eventually, as I had done many Good Things, and everyone else thought I was a Good Thing, I had to come to terms with the fact that my intuition was about to declare war. I had all the right stuff; now I had to become the right stuff. Mask off, gloves on, guns out.

I replied to my coach: “I think I want to quit.” And so My Untangling began.