Show notes

When it comes to being smart and driven, the accounting profession really does attract some of the best and the brightest.  Whether it’s a high school student in the top 10% of their graduating class or a determined mother of 2 who studies nights and weekends in order to pass the CPA exam, we are in an industry that requires intelligence and perseverance.

While we all know that working as an accountant thankfully has its rewards, there are also many challenges that accountants face as they try to balance their career aspirations in addition to trying to have a happy life.  There are so many external demands placed on accountants, that for the first time for many, accountants are rethinking their career choice more than ever before.

You just have to look at the responses we got in the CPA MOMS private Facebook community where we asked the question “Have you ever considered leaving the accounting profession?”  That question literally had the most responses out of any question we’ve asked, with more than 50% saying they had considered leaving.

Of course everyone has their own reasons for considering leaving the profession, but I do know one thing for sure – the lack of work/life balance is a huge part of the reason that so many accountants are considering making a change.  While career success is one thing, more and more people are reconsidering accounting as a profession partly because they just don’t want to succumb to burnout.

If you think about it, the typical 9 – 5 work day is really a thing of the past due to the fact that we’re globally connected to our work, in one way or another, 24 hours a day thanks to technology.  We’re no longer the factory workers of the 1920’s, punching our time card out at 5 pm, and leaving work at work until we punch back in the following day.

On average, accountants are working more than 50 hours a week, they aren’t entirely satisfied with their level of success at work, they struggle with work/life balance, and they are often on the verge of a breakdown.  Unfortunately, the work from home mandate due to the pandemic only added gasoline to an already burning fire, creating a shift from us sometimes working from home, to where we’re now living where we work.

While we would all like to argue that it’s the fault of things like the industry, the IRS, or the client’s demands, I believe we’re overlooking a bigger issue that has everything to do with us and nothing to do with anyone or anything else.  The bigger reason why so many accountants work so hard, don’t set clear boundaries, and don’t feel fulfilled, is because we are an industry of insecure overachievers.

If you’re not familiar with the term, author Laura Empsom wrote about insecure overachievers in her book “Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas”.   She explains that in her 25 years of researching leadership and professional service firms. such as accounting firms, she discovered a common thread for many of these intelligent, highly capable professionals –  the driving force behind all the overachieving and ambition was from a profound sense of their own inadequacy.        

These professionals weren’t overachieving because they believed they were capable or that they were amazing; they were burning themselves out with overachievements because they were constantly chasing proof that they were good enough.  On the surface it might have looked like they were just super diligent and hard working, but what was really happening was that their insecurity made them feel the need to work harder than everyone else, in order to prove their worth to themselves. 

So whether you’ve been told you work too hard or you’re rewarded for working harder than everyone else, it might be time to take a look at whether you’re an insecure overachiever.  You can always continue doing what you’re doing, but it might be helpful to understand why you’re doing it and, more importantly,  whether you like your reasons.

This week I’m going to discuss the things that might be causing you to be an insecure overachiever and what you can do about it.

Things that might be causing you to be an insecure overachiever

If you’re unsure about whether you could be considered an insecure overachiever, here are some of the signs to look out for:  

  1. You work extra long hours
  2. You have a hard time hearing criticism
  3. Your life mainly revolves around work
  4. You rarely feel like you’re doing enough or that you are enough
  5. You suffer with imposter syndrome where you believe your success is based on luck
  6. You believe your achievements define your happiness
  7. You strongly desire other people’s validation or admiration
  8. You sacrifice non-work commitments in favor of work
  9. Your relationships are often based on competition

Now first let me say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having career and business goals, especially as an accountant.  Like I said before, this profession attracts the best and the brightest, so there’s no need to dim your brightness for anyone, for any reason.

The question is, what’s actually driving your ambition; what’s behind working harder and longer than everyone else?  What Laura Epsom’s research found was that insecure overachievers are made, not born, and that they typically experienced some form of psychological, financial or physical insecurity in childhood.

For example, she shares that children who experience sudden and unexpected poverty may find that, as adults, they are never able to earn enough to overcome their fear that this will happen again.  For some children, they grow up believing that they are noticed and valued by their parents only when they are excelling; an attitude that can persist long after they’ve left home because they’ve internalized that insecurity as part of their identity.

This issue can show up in many ways – in your relationship with money, in your inability to set boundaries around your time, in your inability to have downtime or to relax when you do have free time, in your need for validation, and especially in the need to please others.   Unfortunately, being in an industry of insecure overachievers like accounting, you wind up setting the bar higher and higher for each other, eventually making success exhausting and unattainable.

This insidious cycle continues because when new employees see the overachieving behaviors of the seasoned employees, they have a difficult time going against the current.  The newbies bring their own insecurities and then unknowingly wind up accepting the beliefs and behavior of the more senior insecure overachievers, having everyone swept up in the tidal way of overworking and eventually burnout.     

I saw this time and again when I worked at Deloitte, where super smart, insecure overachievers graduated from college, got a prestigious job with other insecure overachievers in a large firm like Deloitte, and now they felt like a small fish in a big pond.  They fear not being successful and not exceeding expectations so they work harder and more hours in order to believe they’re good enough. 

Another thing that might be causing you to be an insecure overachiever is that it’s often rewarded in one form or another.  In the fast-paced, productivity and efficiency-driven profession like accounting, upper management admittedly LOVES overachievers that will stay later than everyone else, work weekends without being asked, and are looking to go above and beyond.

With a system that rewards you based on your comparison to others, insecure overachievers can’t help but want to prove their value and worth, especially when it comes to performance reviews, promotions and raises.  The temptation to be an overachiever is unfortunately fostered by the inherent competitive nature of the accounting profession.

The issue is that once you’ve set such a high bar for yourself, or the bar was set by others, it can be challenging to lower it.  Before you know it, you’re swept up in that tidal wave with everyone else, trying to keep your head above water.

What you can do about it

The catch-22 when it comes to being an insecure overachiever is that the feeling of insecurity can drive you to work long, crazy hours, believing if you worked more and delivered more, that you’ll feel better, but when you don’t, you work harder and longer, and eventually wind up feeling worse.  The key is understanding that most insecure overachievers are just trying to feel better about themselves, but they’re using actions and performance to create a better feeling.

What can make it even more challenging is the fact that you really can get a lot done, and like I said before, accounting firms and companies love these types of employees because they’re driven and typically super productive.  But unfortunately, there’s never a sense of satisfaction within yourself or with your job.

When this happens, the more successful you are, the more you fear failure because you haven’t learned how to fail and like yourself along the way.  This fear can be so all-consuming, that it becomes the thing you constantly try to out run, exhausting yourself in the process.

The most important thing I want you to hear from this episode is this – your negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself are what’s triggering your overperformance.  The reason this is so important to understand is because when you truly see that your thoughts create your feelings, and that when you feel a certain way, you take certain actions, you’ll be able to feel better without needing to be an overachiever.

The truth is that, if you’ve been telling yourself things like, “I could have done better” or “I could have done more”, it’s no wonder you’re overworking.  Thoughts like those are going to naturally create an anxious, unsure feeling, causing you to push yourself harder, work more hours, and try to alleviate that anxiety.  

If this has resonated with you so far, here are a few suggestions that can help:

  1. Listen to podcast episode #144 – 4 Steps To Boost Your Self-Esteem.  A lack of self-esteem comes from a lack of believing that you’re good enough.  In that episode I shared that the good news is, you can improve your self-esteem no matter what environment you grew up in or what life situations you’ve dealt with in the past.  The truth is that your self-esteem is 100% within your control because it is only created by your beliefs about yourself and those beliefs are within your power to change and mold into whatever will help you boost your self-esteem.  So take a listen to that episode and work on the 4 steps that I shared in order to help you boost your self-esteem and decrease your insecurity.
  2. Start to become aware of what you tell yourself at the end of the day.  If it’s anything other than “good job”, you’re going to want to know that.  We all have a voice in our head, just like a CNN ticker tape, with a running commentary.  For most women that running commentary is supercritical and comes from the messages we got from the time we were young girls to now, as working moms.  What is that CNN ticker tape telling you about what you are or aren’t doing?  What is it afraid will happen if you slow down?   If you’re working in an environment that fosters insecure overachievers, you might want to consider working somewhere that supports achievement and balance at the same time.
  3. Decide on purpose what a “good job” looks like.  For most insecure overachievers, you’re always trying to prove that you’re good enough by achieving more, that you never stop to define what a job well done is for you.  By leaving it up to someone else’s perception, you give up control.  Start looking at what’s within your control, what needs to be done, in order for you to genuinely be able to tell yourself “good job”?  For example, it wouldn’t be that your boss told you that you did a good job; it would be that you were thorough and productive from 2 – 5 pm that day or that you responded to client emails within 24 hours. 
  4. Reach out to me for help.  There’s no shame in being an insecure overachiever and I can help you have the balance that you want and deserve.  If you’re feeling anxious at work a lot of the time and wind up working longer and harder than everyone else, I can help you address that anxiety in a way that makes it possible for you to have success, but not get burned out in the process.  I’ll leave the details in the show notes for how you can schedule a free 20-minute session with me (you can schedule it HERE).       

So no matter what the signs are for you that indicate that you might be an insecure overachiever, it doesn’t have to continue being an issue.  Just know that you are so much more than your achievements and that you don’t have to get to some breaking point to realize it.

Summary  

  • The bigger reason why so many accountants work so hard, don’t set clear boundaries, and don’t feel fulfilled, is because we are an industry of insecure overachievers.
  • Unfortunately, being in an industry of insecure overachievers like accounting, you wind up setting the bar higher and higher for each other, eventually making success exhausting and unattainable.
  • The key is understanding that most insecure overachievers are just trying to feel better about themselves, but they’re using actions and performance to create a better feeling.