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Book Review - The Anxious Achiever

THE ANXIOUS ACHIEVER: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower. Morra Aarons-Mele. (2023, Kindle Edition)

Anxious achievers are generally goal-oriented, future-focused, and take work extremely seriously. They are prized team members, because they go the extra mile as a matter of course and nothing less than the best will do. They create extraordinary outcomes, because they are driven to always excel and succeed at any challenge they set for themselves. If this description resonates with you, or you recognize it in others you engage with at work or at home, this book is for you. 

Anxiety is part of life. It’s part of the human condition, and it often accompanies leadership roles—as leadership comes with a heightened set of pressures and responsibilities. Emerging research reveals that, as a society, we are more anxious than ever. According to the author of The Anxious Achiever, Morra Aarons-Mele, if left unmanaged, anxiety can make leaders less effective which, in turn, can reduce the performance of those who report to them and of the overall organization. However, when effectively managed, anxiety can be leveraged and channeled to enhance one’s leadership productivity and effectiveness. So, one might wonder, if anxiety is such a powerful factor in individual and organizational performance, and if it’s so pervasive, why we don’t hear more about it? The reality, according to Aarons-Mele,  is that there remains a stigma associated with talking openly about mental health in work settings. 

The Anxious Achiever is a book with a mission—to reframe how we think about anxiety in the context of leadership and organizations. The author’s overall goal is twofold: 

  1. to build personal awareness of what makes you anxious and your typical response, and 

  2. to create a dependable tool kit to call upon as an aid at work and in life. 

The author, Morra Aarons-Mele, is an entrepreneur and communications executive, and the host of The Anxious Achiever—a top-50 business podcast and top-10 management podcast. In her view, anxiety is a habit, and also can be a refuge for some—likened to an old friend. For example, if you are a perfectionist, one’s self-talk says, “If you just work hard enough, you cannot fail.” While Aarons-Mele does not promote this book as a cure-all, she offers new ways of thinking about anxiety and practical self-help advice.

The Anxious Achiever is divided into two parts. In Part 1, Aarons-Mele explores how to succeed and inspire others when grappling with personal anxiety. Part 2 focuses on specific ways that anxiety flares up at work and common reactions to it, such as overwork, perfectionism, micromanaging, substance use, drinking, and/or unhealthy eating; and includes practical advice, tools, proven coping mechanisms, and exercises for better managing anxiety. 

Throughout the book, Aarons-Mele draws on the works of numerous scholars, shares real-life stories from leaders she has interviewed, weaves in her personal experiences with anxiety, and offers proven tools that can be of immediate benefit in managing anxiety. 

As an experienced higher education leader and consultant who has occupied several high-pressure roles, this reviewer found many insightful passages that resonated. Following are my top ten takeaways:

  • Self-care for success also includes, as much as you’re able, creating the work environment that best supports your personality and your mental health.

  • Decades of research have shown that those who understand their feelings have higher job satisfaction, stronger job performance, and better relationships… Why? They understand themselves and what triggers their anxieties.

  • The leader who can regulate their emotions and remain clearheaded and calm in the midst of a challenge is the one who can lead a team through any experience of collective anxiety and inspire them to perform at their highest capability, rather than “infecting” the system with their personal anxiety and squandering time and energy doing others’ jobs for them.

  • A better understanding of your and your team’s past patterns and formative influences helps develop the crucial self-awareness you need to manage anxiety and be the leader you were meant to be.

  • When you can differentiate fact from opinion, you can let yourself off the hook and relieve yourself of a great deal of anxiety. And you can identify what needs attention and what you can actually improve.

  • We don’t have to be perfect or always be better than others. We have the right to fail and carry on anyway… 

  • Mindfulness shows us a way through the mental maelstrom. It helps us pause before we react to a bad habit or a safety behavior… Mindfulness is an indispensable element in the anxious achiever’s tool kit.

  • Many anxious achievers use perfectionism as a tool to avoid uncomfortable feelings of shame and criticism, and they push themselves to the point of overwork in an effort to achieve impossible standards of perfection.

  • …[C]riticism and feedback are part of work life, and avoidance is not a good strategy. Knowing what you need to improve is healthy and necessary, and when you have a boss, a coach, or a mentor who will help you identify those areas and show you how to get better, it’s a true gift.

  • Becoming clear on your values is also necessary to take on one of the biggest challenges we face as we grow into leadership: to stand strong on our own.

This book is an interesting and thought-provoking read on how to recognize and convert anxiety into a source of positive and creative power. While some content tends to be repetitive throughout the chapters, the author does provide well-informed perspectives and insights on a topic that definitely deserves more attention in the workplace, particularly in the context of leadership.