Performance Trap

Aug 19, 2022

Dear Professor, 

Somewhere in my childhood, the imposter, false-self, alter-ego was born as a defense against shame. This internal identity thief whispered, Zach, don’t be your real self, because nobody likes you as you are. Follow the trends, pursue worldly success, perform and achieve…construct a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will truly know. 

So I became a good boy- polite, well mannered, the teacher’s pet and addicted to praise. I learned that good performance brought the praise and recognition that I so desperately wanted and needed.  Intentional or not, the adults in my life sent the message, “you are loved when you perform and achieve.”  I didn’t necessarily feel unloved if I failed, but I was resolved not to find out…I studied hard, became Salutatorian of my high school class, Eagle Scout of the Nation in 1995, top 10% of my class a West Point, an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer and a Chick-fil-A Operator, often unconsciously seeking the applause of many to answer my two core questions that I should have taken to you:

Do I have what it takes and am I loved?    

In recent years, you helped me see that my patterns of success led to addictive behavior.  The problem with my addiction is that most people encourage it.  If I told a close friend that I was struggling with crack or cocaine, he would undoubtedly admonish my behavior and implore me to stop.  However, I have very few people in my life that can see the destructive nature of my performance and achievement addiction.  As I write this very moment, I have to ask myself, “why I am I writing?”  Only you truly know the full motive, but let’s not waste my pain, I want others to learn from my grappling with you.    

How now shall I live in a performance based world? 

Thomas Merton said to a fellow monk, “If I make anything out of the fact that I am Thomas Merton, I am dead…And if you make anything out of the fact that you are in charge of the pig barn…you are dead…Quit keeping score altogether and surrender ourselves with all our sinfulness to God who sees neither the score nor the scorekeeper but only his child redeemed by Christ.”  

How do I raise my children in such a way that they understand the world in which we live without becoming a slave to it? Can one be successful in this world and be true to who they are?  I now see the performance based trap for what it is…though understanding that there is nothing inherently wrong with rewards and recognition…how do we prevent the smiley face sticker in pre-K from becoming the Ferrari at 35?  These are the questions I’m wrestling with as I raise my seven children.  

Your forever student,