A false definition of success cost me everything.
Overachieving is a common trait among people with Myalgic Encephalomyeletis, a metabolic and neuroimmune condition that can develop after the body fails to properly recover from a virus or other environmental threat.
I was one of those people. Ironically, the hallmark symptom of M.E. is a failure to recover from exertion (called a “crash”). By not saying no, my body essentially did it for me.
I’ve since realized that the overachieving ways that contributed to my health downfall stemmed from a false definition of success and happiness.
While my health fell apart due to a combination of pathogens (a virus, mold, etc.) and physically overdoing it, this false definition of success created an extra cosmic weight holding back my recovery.
I’d have to lose everything to redefine what “success” actually was.
Here’s how I (finally) broke free, and what my new definition is as a 34 year old. But first, let me show you how I arrived there.
My old definition of success:
- Other people’s opinions of me
- What I did (visible accomplishments)
- A competition with what others have done
How I measured success throughout my life:
- A ranked academic order against other students age 5 – 22
- The amount of money I made and my job title age 22 – 32 compared to peers
- (To some degree) From 2010 onwards, the number of likes I received on social media
A glimpse into my formative years:
In my house, the US News and World Report’s annual university ranking edition was something sacred since age 5. In school, it was not just the long hours studying and little sleep that took their toll, but also the internalized intense pressure of needing to outrank others. I’d have nightmares about grades or a missed paper deadline into my thirties. (I hadn’t had one in a while, until I started writing this post.)
Please enjoy this photo of me waiting for the bus on the first day of school.
The mindset that my success was determined by comparing myself to others continued through college and my career. It, and financial reasons, caused me to take the first decent job offer where I could apply my ‘practical’ economics major as a government auditor. In 2008, not many companies were hiring, so I considered this a success when I beat out others. It was not exactly the inventive career path I secretly dreamed of as a child.
When I was laid off during the 2009 recession, I decided to launch my own online startup.
Despite my optimism, I was mired with stress.
Ninety percent of the stress didn’t come from the work itself, but comparing myself to others.
The developers I partnered with were busy with other projects, and I was slipping behind. When another funded startup pivoted to create the exact same Facebook-powered social job search engine, I started to freak out. (That specific company ended up blowing through $50 million and going bust.)
I felt I was just as smart as these nerdy guys who were making it. In primary school, I was the nerdy girl that the nerdy boys made fun of.
I had a lot to prove to the world, and life was a competition.
Rather than asking potential customers “How can I be of value?” I was caught up with what everyone else was doing. Comparing myself to others led me to trying to do too many things and wasted energy on hypothetical thinking. Here are some examples:
- “This startup is doing That…. we need to do That, too!
- “They’re doing what I’m doing, so we need to do something Extra!” (our website should include a MAP of all the jobs!)
My thoughts went down multiple avenues, instead of just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. This led to not getting things done. And since my definition of success was based on achievements (things I could show people), this created further stress.
When I got a job to pay the bills at a funded startup that offered a platform for remote website usability testing, I put my own entrepreneurial dreams on the back burner and became solely focused on proving my worth to this new company. I was grateful for the opportunity to receive a paycheck.
Since I let others define my success, I was extremely dejected when a middle manager took credit for my entire content strategy (and the boss initially believed him).
I had a compelling need to provide I was “good enough” to others. It was their decision.
There were many red flags about this company, but I marched on… for a total of 5 years!
Two years in, I took a $3000 user experience night class in hopes to receive opportunities to apply my creative skills. The VP of UX at a major company teaching the class said my designs were impressive! On portfolio night, a leader at a famous Palo Alto design agency said my project (an imagined web app called Skill Up that helped people find courses to build their digital skills and encouraged them along the way) was very similar to what their innovation team was helping create for a major San Francisco client. I had a good pulse on the times and was improving my skills.
Unfortunately, my own company did not give me the creative opportunities I saught, not even to optimize our outdated “be a tester” landing page (the boss cited lack of experience, bad skills, other priorities). A year later, a new guy, who’s previous job was a Safari tour guide, was tasked to redesign this exact page in his second week.
I was told by a top boss: “He probably asked nicer – you could really learn a lot from him!” Looking back today, I laugh, but at the time I was very dispirited.
Instead of directing my energy into finding a healthier job, I doubled down on trying to prove myself to this one.
Two years into my job at the user testing company, I transitioned to a new team with a nice manager.
I was finally in a role where no one could take credit for my work. My job was to source ultra-niche customer research participants for our enterprise clients. I exploited every friendship and loose connection to find target customers from all over the world for our clients.
I was killin’ it at work. But I was also killin’…myself.
As the company grew from 40 to 400 people in the following 3 years (I was hire 11), there continued to only be one of me. In my final years, I was responding to emails and Slack messages at all hours of the day and night. I also kept up a vibrant presence on Twitter (a marketing responsibility I held on to), doubling our followers each year (it flatlined after I left). I redeemed any negative perception.
People depended on me. The sales sharks loved me because I could deliver upon their crazy promises made to close deals. I worked mornings, midnight, and weekends to onboard participants and finalize vendor contracts. I optimized hundreds of surveys and usability study questions for excellent results. My teammates were appreciative. The bosses acknowledged how valuable I was.
My old job was like a bad boyfriend I couldn’t quit:
When I see people in unhealthy relationships I think to myself: “Why don’t you leave? – You deserve so much better!” Yet I realized I can’t be too quick to judge, because I was in one.
And who’s to say a new company would have treated me any better?
Since high-market-value job skills (such as product management, data analysis, design) weren’t being cultivated, I felt stuck. I also needed health insurance for my congenital heart condition, which the company finally gave me after two years of employment.
I tried to do everything to show loyalty and prove myself. When the company needed more bodies, I referred a friend for a job (the boss got an engineer to teach him database queries in his first week – something I wanted to do). I took a night Product Management course to learn how to run those database queries and more (the guy on my team who I convinced to join me got promoted shortly after). I volunteered for the “Mobile Cross Functional Team” and spent Thanksgiving sneaking into my sister’s second bedroom to orchestrate bug reports across dozens of devices and 100 hundred websites for our new mobile app.
Nothing changed, because they needed me to do what I was doing. Yet if I didn’t do what I was doing exceptionally well, that wouldn’t help me either.
In December 2015, I worked intense hours with a broken heater in our Berkeley, California apartment.
My goal was to earn a year-end bonus that would make my income finally hit $100,000.
I also wanted to hopefully finally “earn” the opportunity to work with the product team. On top of my workload, I had gone to every client-facing team with a collaborative spirit and put together 8 innovative but easy-to-engineer (I got engineering input) features that could have significantly cut email back-and-forth, improved quality, and gotten us more money. Every client team leader loved them, including the boss’s brother.
To think how desperate I was just for the chance to share my ideas that would save/make my company a ton of money!
But I started to feel like I couldn’t go on any longer. My 70-hour-per-week workloads only seemed to be increasing. Nevertheless, I pulled an all-nighter that Christmas Eve for an overseas project involving German mens’ electric shaving habits.
I hoped my efforts in this year-end push would earn me the six-figure validation I desperately craved. Though I lived simply with my genius (now) husband who had a stable professor’s income, this number was important to my identity. After all, many of my college peers were making a lot more!
I wish someone told me that unemployment is better than an unhealthy job. Because when you eventually get sick by pushing past your breaking point, you’ll lose your job and your life savings.
I put a price tag on my health. If my bonus that year working double time while doing the work of three people was only 5%, I would have metaphorically burned things to the ground.
If it was 10% I would quit peacefully. And if it was 15%, I told myself I would stay.
I would later find a research paper showing how people who reported high stress in the 6 months prior to infectious EBV (one of my pathogenic triggers) were significantly more likely to develop ME/CFS. Talking to researchers and people who developed ME/CFS who had other triggers, this appears to be a common theme.
Stress accumulates. And our bodies don’t heal as well when we’re under it.
That Christmas, like every year, I spent with my parents. My mom had hung a framed poem I wrote for a 4th grade assignment in the room I was staying.
Yes, I had perfect cursive in 4th grade. I knew it was a sign (cry for help). Prompt. Thinking. Hardworking. Serious girl working always on the computer.
The writing was literally on the wall! ‘Special person’ (tears of laughter), I’ll keep, but I couldn’t be that person any longer.
When my now husband and I arrived back home, I wrote a new poem for myself, dated December 30, 2015. I no longer have this pink post-it, though found a picture of it on my phone.
A new poem, for a new life.
No less than three days later, I’d arrive to ER with a bucket, shaking, odd heart sensations, with a black t-shirt over my eyes. Just the day before I went out for a fun dinner and drinks.
The light was starting to flicker
I got that bonus, in case you were wondering. But it wasn’t enough. I put in my 2-weeks notice. (The boss invited me back to present my product ideas to executive management. I declined.)
However, I didn’t take much time to think about my future. I immediately began working at a new company. I believed unemployment meant failure and laziness.
Creative. Making Things. Happy. I was very grateful for my nice new job and continued on the path.
My health would unravel in May 2016, weeks after my enjoyable 30th birthday, while joining my partner on a business trip and Belgian family visit.
Having a fun time with friends on my 30th birthday. I was vibrant and fun loving, but I blew through all the red flags.
My health downfall began on a trip to visit my partner’s family, just months after moving and starting my nice new job. A French-speaking park ranger had to rescue me from a zoo trail. I spent the next two days mostly in bed with a fever.
Once I felt mostly better, I reached for coffee and started working. In fact, I took on an additional small side project at the plea of a former client at my old user testing company. (Reflecting back, I wonder if this added a layer of stress that led to the dominoes falling – my body saying “Don’t go back there, Liz!”)
After I collapsed in the Brussels airport days later, was hospitalized, and was cleared to fly home, I quickly started to work again upon arrival.
When I felt 90% better, I gave it 100% and worked a full 8 hours straight at my new job without a break, and then majorly crashed the next day. I can give you a half dozen other examples in the early days.
Since none of the first four doctors I saw gave me a note (and one said it was just post-viral fatigue that would go away), I didn’t think anything but to continue working.
I needed an authority figure to order me to put my health first, if it was ever to happen.
My health temporarily improved a few weeks in thanks to major diet changes.
Six weeks after the zoo incident, I pushed myself walking 2 kilometers to the train to go to work on a foggy morning (everything felt harder that day). The next day I crashed hard, and I’d never return to above 40% of my energy for the next two years. And rarely above 30%.
To paint the picture, I barely had stamina to fold socks and struggled or even look at a screen on some days and a growing list of alarming symptoms. But instead of throwing in the towel, I tried to cling on to my life. The new company I recently joined was amazingly kind, considering burnout from my previous company likely contributed to my health state.
My new boss saw I was falling apart and kindly offered me 6 weeks off work. I didn’t take it. 75% of the reason was because I didn’t have a doctor’s note to rest or a real diagnosis yet.
But part of the reason I didn’t take time off was because of my false definition of success – and needing to prove my contribution to society through visible accomplishments.
I am deeply grateful for my entire team at this company for all their support throughout my “Mystery Illness” at the time.
I eventually quit much later, after barely holding on part-time. Yet (because I didn’t fully learn the lesson yet) I soon after felt the need to “do something.”
Feeling the need to “Do” something
I tried to revive my old startup with a new spin. The original web app showed users job openings at companies where their Facebook friends worked. I realized that this helps certain people over others if you catch my drift, so I began to transform it into a mentorship platform for women and minorities.
I was at 25% functionality mentally and physically, and instead of resting I felt compelled to make things right in the world and turn my past failure into a success!
At one point, I consulted on the side for a small user research company (it was eventually acquired by my old user research company).
These side projects to “prove I still got it” – did not. They ultimately zapped my energy and set back my health progress.
I go caught up in activism and trying to “prove” things to others:
Doing research for this blog, before I actually recovered, I got sucked into ME/CFS (an abbreviation for Myalgic Encephalomyeletis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that’s often interchanged) activism. I felt I needed to DO something, to prevent others from experiencing my same plight from lack of effective early intervention.
Because I got validation from others (like respected authority figures), I felt all the more weight on me to convince doctors (who I had such esteem for) to “take ME/CFS seriously.”
Yet, I began to suspect that tweeting into a silo of like-minded individuals wasn’t the best way to enact change to the medical establishment.
I had spent a lifetime of trying to prove myself to authority figures. It got me no where.
The new me is working with others who healed from CFS/ME and the people who helped along the way to show what actually works from the ground up. And that’s how I believe things will change.
The new me has nothing to prove to anybody. The new me speaks my truth freely, with love.
My new definition of success:
- Feeling good
- Alignment with my purpose
- Finding joy in this moment
This stuff would have sounded boring to me 5 years ago. But when you lose your health, experience the depths of hell, and make it to the other side, it’s quite special.
I’m using my stalking and networking skills (that I formerly used to recruit user research participants to help clients sell more material goods) to connect with a positive community of people who healed, people who help people heal (many of them who healed themselves), and people with a recovery mindset open to make changes in their life to heal.
I’m using my writing skills to state my truth, with love.
I’m using my website usability and design knowledge to create a beautiful, calm website with hope and actionable information. So people don’t have to rely on dark, messy disease forums like I did because there is little else out there.
And it’s all with a collaborative spirit. The little voice that was constantly comparing myself to others who would have said, “That person has 40x the followers you do! I’m not good enough. I should do it all!” has been turned down to volume 0.
I realize I have a new metric. It’s not a follower count. It’s much more simple (see next section).
Vera’s new definition of success after healing from severe CFS/ME:
My new friend Vera, who will be soon sharing her powerful recovery story from severe CFS/ME on this blog, just shared her own video with me on this topic.
Vera has wonderful videos and wise insights beyond her years. So much of her video rings true for me, even the hilarious childhood performance video she shares (cry-laugh). Vera is a source of inspiration for me, and I encourage you to check out her channel.
Though we each discovered things on our own, in our own ways, hearing other people’s healing journeys is something I enjoy (hence why I made this site!).
Can I inspire one person today by speaking my truth and living my joy? That’s my metric. And I’ve learned when I think about just one person, I often help multiple people.
And when I speak from my heart, it resonates.
I’ve also learned that working with a growth and collaborative mindset and imbibing that spirit (and connecting with others who embody that spirit) has an exponential effect.
We’re creating something good. As my friend Raelan who also recovered from ME/CFS and has a helpful YouTube channel says, “We’re stronger together.”
It’s the little things.
To change my thought patterns that kept me in “external validation mode,” I needed to change my behavior. Our smartphones have programmed our thumb muscle memory and dopamine-seeking brain. It takes creating new habits to break the unhealthy ones.
For me, it starts with my morning routine. It seems so simple, yet it’s so powerful.
Do I check my phone first thing in the morning and validate a false idea that what other people are doing matters?
Do I check social media to see how many likes I get to validate the false idea that other’s approval determine my worthiness?
Or do I drink warm water? Meditate. Write in my gratitude journal. Imagine myself on a healthy adventure. Enjoy an uninterrupted breakfast. Here’s my 7 step morning routine, before I check my phone.
I plan to soon share what other people who have recovered do to cultivate calmness and inner joy.
In that pink-post-it-note poem, I asked the universe to be happy.
A book called The Energy Codes by Dr. Sue Morter explains how we don’t get to pick our challenges that ultimately reveal our purpose in life.
I would have asked for anything else besides this unimaginable condition to ultimately lead me to it. But this was the challenge given to me.
I had to lose everything to find my happiness and true purpose. (joy and inspiration)
It’s too late for me to be “30 under 30.” I’m not going to be 40 under 40. Heck, I might not even be a million under a 100.
But now I’m truly happy. And that’s all that matters. And I’m making things. And I’m inspiring others. And I’m dancing.
What is your definition of success?