When you’re ambitious and care about your career, it makes sense to want to be the best you can be. But without realizing it, that drive to achieve can tip over into workaholism and toxic productivity, and your life becomes consumed and defined by what you do and how successful you are at it. Garnering all your worth and self-esteem from the perception of others can create and fuel a fear of not being good enough, which can cripple your well-being and self-esteem—and keep you stuck in what one author calls “the cult of never enough.”
That’s how Manisha Thakor, CFA, CFP, financial expert and author of MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your “Enough”, felt. On the outside, Thakor says her life seemed like it was seamless—she’d amassed a reputation as a celebrated financial expert, earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, and built a 30-year career in finance that saw her working as both a certified financial planner (CFP) and chartered financial analyst (CFA).
But beneath the surface, she was struggling. As a result of always putting her work first, Thakor’s health suffered, she got divorced, and she “lost all [her] friends,” she says, which left her bereft and drained. It was only then that Thakor says she realized something had to change.
“I was surviving as a human doing, not thriving as a human being.“—Manisha Thakor, CFA, CFP, financial expert and author
“I was surviving as a human doing, not thriving as a human being,” she explains. “I realized I had fallen into this mindset where it did not matter how much I earned, or how many accomplishments I achieved, or how much praise I received because it was just never enough—I didn’t feel like I was enough.”
It took a while, but now she’s found a better equation for happiness and fulfillment; instead of chasing accolades and accomplishments, Thakor says she focuses on enriching her life in ways that are supportive and untethered from material and external prizes. She splits her time between Portland and rural Maine. What’s the key? She’s found a balance between financial wellness and emotional well-being, or what she likes to call “money zen,” which is the basis for her new book and the accompanying quiz.
Take a quiz to find out if you’re in the ‘cult of never enough’
To accompany her just-released book, Thakor created a brief quiz to give people insights into whether they’re trapped on the hamster wheel of hustle culture. It consists of six questions and contains three possible answers that point to how much external validation, such as achievements, praise, and income, dictates your sense of self-worth and value.
Thakor recommends taking the quiz twice: Answer once as you would today, and then think about how you might have answered the same questions five years ago as it could help you identify patterns around limiting beliefs or, conversely, show you how much you’ve grown. “My answers from five years ago are completely different from what they are today,” she says.
The questions are designed to assess how much your desire for praise and accomplishment color your day-to-day. Here is what each potential result means about you:
- Well-being Ninja: This is a person who has a good grasp of work-life balance, says Thakor, and prioritizes their well-being above their ambition and achievements. “[This category] is where I would like people to be, where you are investing in your emotional wealth bucket very deliberately, and you’re bucking cultural trends that tell you the answer to virtually anything that ails us is more,” she says. You don’t believe the key to happiness and fulfillment is more accolades, more money, more commitments, and you’re better off for it.
- Cult Member: People who get this result show tendencies toward prioritizing work, money, and accolades, but they may also have some identity outside of work, too. They could benefit from doing some personal growth work to extract less of their self-worth from external validation.
- Cult Leader: If this is your result from the quiz, Thakor says it’s an indication that something is off-kilter that can’t remain that way for long—this is where she was before she crashed, she says. But it’s not too late to recalibrate and readjust.
So how do you even end up in this place to begin with?
In researching her book, Thakor found four main entry points into overwork to the point that your self-worth and life are only derived from your achievements; in her case, this was experiencing what she calls a “small t” trauma in adolescence that was actually the root of her overwork as an adult.
“These are things that happen to us before age 25 that imprinted on our brain and consciously, or more often subconsciously, drove us to engage in behaviors that served us at the time to help protect us,” she explains. “But they continued into adulthood and morphed into beliefs and behaviors that became toxic to our ability to enjoy life and experience satisfaction.”
Mercilessly bullied by her peers in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, Thakor says she found acceptance in academics and praise for being a good student. “When I moved into the work world, what replaced that was money and promotions, so subconsciously those three years of small t traumas that were seemingly unrelated to my sense of self as an adult drove me to these behaviors,” she says. She adds that many people who deal with this may have dealt with several of these at once. Here are the four entryways into a life of overwork that Thakor identified:
1. Small t traumas: The things that happen to you in your childhood and adolescence that stick with you and fuel your adult habits that morph into toxicity. For Thakor that was finding solace from bullying in academic praise, but for someone else it may be that one phrase a parent, coach, or teacher said to them growing up about not being worthy enough, or smart enough, or good enough to do something.
2. Cultural norms: This is about how large work looms in your life and the American impulse to make your profession a key part of your identity. If much of your identity is wrapped up in what you do, it’s easy to escape into work and let it consume your life.
3. Social influences: This is about comparing yourself to others in terms of what they seem to have and do, and feeling like you need to do the same or that what you’re doing doesn’t measure up. Social media drives this, but Thakor notes that it was the widespread use of credit cards that first allowed people to spend beyond their means, even if they amassed debt to do it—she argues that this put what was once clearly out of reach within bounds. “No matter where we fall on the earnings spectrum, your neighbors and friends are able to live well beyond their means and we look at them and think, ‘If they can do it, why am I not doing it?’ or ‘I should be doing it,’ or ‘There’s something wrong with me if I can’t do it,'” she says.
4. Evolutionary biological standpoints: This comes from an evolutionary need to feel safe and secure. “If you fear you don’t have enough money, and the [cost] of what appropriate food, shelter, etc. is constantly rising, your amygdala is on full alert all the time because you both need the money to meet your basic needs and having money is the means by which we take care of those two base layers of safety and security [according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs],” she explains. Fear of not being secure enough can be a powerful motivator to strive and achieve that can tip into making that your whole life’s purpose.
Finding a way out of the cult of never enough
There is no singular way to break this mindset, warns Thakor; it takes building habits and thought patterns that are more supportive of a life that’s not defined by a fear of not being good enough. You have to confront exactly what got you to this place and work to untangle it. It’s not a quick or easy fix, she adds, and the discovery of what led you here may come with a lot of pain.
Each person’s journey out of this will look different, and it starts with understanding how you got there in the first place. “The answer is understanding the problem, how you fell into it, and how those big buckets I’m talking about manifested personally for you,” she says. Only then can you really reorient your life so you’re not living it because of a fear of not being good enough, but along the way, there are certain habits and mindset shifts to make to get there—and stay there.
5 ways to break free of the fear of not being good enough
1. Find your “self-worth equals equation,” and dismantle it
Everyone who deals with a fear of not being good enough fastens their self-worth to their own specific entity—for a yoga teacher, this could mean thinking your skill is tied to how many people are on their mats on Saturday morning in your class, or a scientist could see this as how many papers they’ve published that have been cited by their peers. For Thakor, it was tying hers to her income, so disentangling how good she was from the number on her payslip was key to freeing herself from the cult of never enough. She says, “It’s so painful and embarrassing for me to say out loud now, but I literally believed that my self-worth as a human was my net worth.”
Figuring out your personal “self-worth equals equation,” as Thakor calls it, and identifying whether it contributes to toxic or unhelpful behaviors is part of tamping down the fear of not being good enough.
2. Take off the “busy badge”
This tenet of Thakor’s approach is about not taking on things just for the sake of being busy. She calls it wearing a “busy badge,” or glorifying how packed your schedule and plate are, which is detrimental to your health. If you’re filling your days just to fill them, you may not have time for key parts of a well-rounded life, like strong social bonds (which are key for your happiness and longevity).
Ripping off your busy badge (or eschewing it all together) is key to making sure you’re not overwhelmed and tapped out—after all, being busy isn’t the same as being productive. So make sure you have the time and space to actually breathe, relax, and enjoy your days, rather than jamming your calendar full of obligations just to say you’re doing a lot.
3. Don’t worry about “achieving less”
Thakor’s main takeaway for how to be happy and break free of this fear of not being good enough is to give yourself permission to achieve less while allowing the space to figure out what exactly makes you feel fulfilled. “I do not mean you give up your professional interests and objectives, but what I’m saying is people have become so busy that we confuse ambition and career development with being busy, and that’s not the case because you develop skills in a wide variety of ways,” she says.
What this does mean is that giving yourself permission to not be at the top of every leaderboard at work has value, too. Instead of prioritizing achievements, you’re focusing on growth and learning. Thakor says that operating from this place is actually better for professional development, anyway. “Having a bit of space to figure out what is authentically interesting to you professionally and personally will guide you toward the things that put you into the flow state when you’re not so crazy busy and overwhelmed,” she says.
4. Embrace “joy-based spending”
If money only matters as a means to amass more things you probably don’t really need or want, or to use as a bragging point, it’s not truly helping you. That’s why Thakor says it’s important to practice what she calls “joy-based spending,” or maximizing your money in a way that enriches your life off the clock.
To do this, you want to marshal your money toward whatever it is that makes you truly happy and fulfilled while avoiding racking up massive debt to do it. Think about what in life brings you joy (is it traveling? pursuing a hobby? seeing your family?) and budget for that within what’s possible for you.
5. Focus on having both “financial health and emotional wealth”
Thakor found that a good mix of financial health and emotional wealth is the key to actual happiness. What works for her is a mix of “financial health and emotional wealth.” This is the equation she used to rejigger her life to achieve what she calls “moneyzen,” or a sense of “calm, confidence, and clarity” about the relationship money and achievement play in your life. It’s about enriching your life beyond your job and bank account, while still making decisions that put you in financial shape to live the life you want. “To put it in investment terms,” Thakor says, “it gives you a way to make small daily and big life decisions about where and how you want to allocate your scarce dollars given your limited time on earth.”