The last time I wrote something for my blog was during the COVID-19 lockdown in the first half of 2020. It seems only appropriate that I update the blog again during my 20 day vacation from work that I’ve primarily spent within the four walls of my apartment. While Omicron has torn apart travel plans I was really looking forward to, there’s something about unexpectedly getting 3 empty weeks on my calendar that felt liberating — an unknown burden lifted off my shoulders. It brought me back to an eerily similar emotion I felt during my latest performance review at work. Let me explain.

Growing up, I was consistently in the top 10% of my class. This was the result of several factors including my academic curiosity, supportive parents (with high expectations), competitive peers and tying my self-worth to grades. That last bit is especially crucial because as children, we were constantly told by the all-knowing adults around us that getting good grades leads to a better life. Unbeknownst to them, my anxious mind also added on the converse interpretation that failing to get good grades will result in a terrible life. Reflecting back on my formative years, I ended up internalizing this as two irrefutable truths — (1) not being in the highest X% would have awful consequences and (2) paths less traveled were not for me since those don’t have the measurable success indicators the world would judge me on.

Notice I didn’t internalize a drive to succeed but rather a fear of failure. While the latter does often lead to the former, I’ve now come to realize it’s not a sustainable way of life. The most striking example of this is my emotional response to success, which tends to be relief and not pride or happiness. Nearly every time I’ve gotten promoted at work or scored well in an exam, the overwhelming emotion has been respite from anxiety instead of the joy of success. Combined with the gamified “levels” in academics and corporate ladders, this has perversely also meant achieving every milestone merely shifted the goalpost further ahead. My peers often talk about the cognitive dissonance of staying content and wanting more while I’ve yet to even truly feel the former.

Vilifying failure has also resulted in my two Achilles’ heels — inexperience with defeat and an aversion to risk. I’ve never experienced a major setback in my life, partly due to over-preparedness & hard work but also because I’ve always chosen the beaten path. Growing up in developing economies usually means not having the luxury of a government safety net or familial wealth to fall back on. This is why some Europeans are comfortable backpacking across Asia until their savings run out while most Indians keep their passports in ziplock bags to avoid water damage on a trip to the Sahara. Compound this desire to play it safe several times over and you get a highly-represented member of the industry working in a stable job at a top-tier company within a country that runs like a well-oiled machine.

Tying my self-worth to external recognition has also led to pretty unhealthy outcomes. For example, needing to please a semi-anonymous performance review system that spits out a rating twice a year to validate my self-worth and dismiss my imposter syndrome was the quickest way to burnout. This is further exacerbated now that I’ve worked alone from a corner of my home longer than I’ve worked from an office with familiar faces. And while grinding at work got me promoted twice in three years (with every promotion leading to a sigh of relief and an immediate shifting of the goalpost), the exponential growth also meant feeling pressured to maintain an unsustainable trajectory.

This brings me to my latest performance review at work, where I received a less-than-stellar rating for the very first time. It wasn’t a bad rating and was still better than average but it suddenly threw me off my always-on-top trajectory and I felt…relieved. But this wasn’t the unhealthy relief I’ve always felt with success! It was the relief of being able to take it slower for the next few months because I didn’t have to work overtime to maintain this rating. It was the relief of being able to switch teams (maybe even jobs!) without delaying my next promotion due to ramp-up time. It was the relief of having the space to dive deep into a new area or focus on my wellbeing without the guilt of “wasting” precious hours. It was the relief of knowing the world around me doesn’t crumble when I’m not in the top 10%.

The way I see it is that when you’re leading a race, your only concern is not giving up your position and following the path laid out for you. If you trip and fall, you start noticing the world around you that was previously a blur and the alternative routes that have always existed. And after you lose the lead, you’re free to take a breath, question the race’s purpose and recalibrate yourself. Let failure set you free!