The Dangers of Becoming Superhuman – How to avoid Over-Optimized Entrepreneur Syndrome

by Peter Shallard

The danger of becoming super human for entrepreneurs

The path to entrepreneurial success has become synonymous with becoming superhuman.

With shining examples like Richard Branson and Elon Musk to inspire us, it’s no longer enough to achieve mere business success. The new entrepreneurial definition of success should be dubbed “The Tony Stark” – you need to become a billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist… and you should probably look like Robert Downey Junior too.

Even if you dial the ambition back from “super human” to merely “optimized human”, you’re still looking at a todo list that includes a successful business, an inspiring relationship with a total babe, epic mastery of high speed sports and/or intellectually complex hobbies, raising of Mensa level genius children, multilingual fluency, good-looking brilliant friends, effortless charisma… and the list goes on.

Ever felt that pressure to be better in every area

The desire to “crush it” is a good ideology, but what if I told you that – in practice – it’s crippling the progress of the entrepreneurs mid-way through their journey to the top.

Over-optimization is dangerous. Here’s why… 

“Crushing” turns into “Splitting”. And Splitting is terrible for you.

Ronald Fairbairn – a renowned psychiatrist back in the day – coined the term “Splitting” to describe the destructive force of All-or-Nothing thinking. He defined this tendency as a defense mechanism in which the subject would perceive others as totally amazing and sublime, or utterly terrible and nasty.

Splitting, in other words, is black and white thinking.

When people develop the habit of splitting their perception of others – loved ones, colleagues etc – they hold those other people to impossible standards. When the person fails to measure up, they’re written off.

Worse than that, when Splitting is applied to the self, you hold yourself to an impossible standard. One might say, a superhuman standard. And when you inevitably fail to measure up to your enormous expectations… you’ll write yourself off.

It goes a little like this: 

An entrepreneur decides they need to achieve “mastery” in a few spheres of life; let’s say a conservative triangle of wealth, health and relationship awesomeness. A vision of idealistic perfection begins to form.

Over time, the entrepreneur becomes frustrated with themselves as they fail to hit 100% of their super human goal. Because they’re “splitting”, they have no appreciation for the 50% progress they’ve made. Instead they self flagellate, because their not perfect vis-à-vis they are a failure.

Relationship isn’t sublime sex and serene cohabitation? You’ve failed.  

Crushed salads all week but caved for a sneaky burger and fries on Friday night? You’ve failed. 

Business isn’t a masterpiece of freedom producing automation and purpose driven inspired labor? You’ve failed. 

This is the psychological reality of a “Splitting” entrepreneur – torn between superhuman goals and very human (imperfect) results.

Splitting is the dark side of the super human, optimization, leverage seeking, self hacking movement. When you’re not Iron Man (or woman), you’re nothing.

Academic psychology aside, I see entrepreneurial splitting – aka Over-Optimized Entrepreneur Syndrome – in my practice all the time. It tears entrepreneurs up, ties them in knots and leaves some of the (objectively) highest achievers in the WORLD… feeling like pieces of shit.

 Here’s a few examples – identities and details anonymized: 

One entrepreneur, sitting on a seven figure business and personal income putting him in the top 1% of humans on this planet, felt that it wasn’t enough. He started “hacking” to improve himself – which sounds innocent enough. (I can’t fault it, since I too peddle a form of self improvement.)

The problems began when he over-optimized with his favorite self improvement method: Audio tapes.

This guy was studying another language on tape, listening to business strategy books and more. Every spare minute, household chore or commute was the cue to pump his brain full of new information.

The more he learned, the more aware of his inadequacies he became. He realized that he “should” be traveling to master language, immersing himself in foreign culture. But his family life wasn’t optimized for that – so there was yet another thing to be fixed.

Meanwhile, what about business? “Inspiring” content meant that he was now deeply unsatisfied with his work and in awe of the Rockefeller types who he was starting to measure himself against.

This client came to me in a mess. Absolutely paralyzed, with all motivation mojo run dry. He was overwhelmed, burnt out and fed up. He’d been listening to much superhuman self improvement, the quality of his life had become terrible.

Rationalizing the desire to improve, with the reality that you can’t change everything at once

The solution, of course, is to do things one at a time. That’s actually what this post is about. I’m dishing out advice that mothers give their toddlers when they find them frustrated with their building blocks.

Relax. Breath. Now pick up one piece at a time.

The rise of the Over-Optimized Entrepreneur means that some of the smartest, most ambitious people in the world are forgetting mom’s key lesson: Incremental progress builds big, strong and cool stuff… or businesses.

Another client was in a critical point in business – having just pre-sold a ton of his product, he had twelve months worth of product fulfillment responsibility.  He was flush with cash and under pressure to deliver.

 So where did Over-Optimized Entrepreneur Syndrome send him? 

Straight to the juice machine! NOW, apparently, was the time to absolutely crush diet/nutrition/health… and not just by taking baby healthy steps, but by committing to a relentless on going meal replacement strategy of green juices. Plus daily workouts. Plus increased business networking. Oh and it was also time to get out there and start dating properly.

Innocently enough, a small bite of business success prompted him to try to become superhuman. In a grand effort to turn over of ALL the leaves, he accidentally started Splitting.

Needless to say, this entrepreneur regularly found himself at home watching Netflix, eating pizza. Because…

Over-Optimization DOESN’T WORK

The inner child – or simply that unconscious part of your mind whose job it is to protect your happiness and wellbeing – isn’t having any of it.

Your unconscious can do delayed gratification, but only with laser like focus and only when incremental rewards aren’t too far away.

Trying to hack EVERYTHING for optimum success – all at once – is a shortcut to burn out. You’ll keep “Splitting”, and end up so far in the dark side that you can’t see your way out.

We already know how to win at life. Hacking everything is not it.

We know because our athletes and scientists know. A moderate approach to improvement – in any area – built around incremental, sustainable and satisfying ritual is what works.

The entrepreneurs constantly leaping for superhuman status end up crashing back so far it breaks them. Self esteem gets destroyed. Hope evaporates.

That’s the danger of Over-Optimization

The missing chapter of the Tortoise and Hare tale would reveal that the Hare spent his days drooling and mumbling at walls. His mental steam would be all burnt out. They’d be nothing but regret and madness echoing around the vast – and now unfulfilled, empty – caverns of his over-zealous expectations.

Pick one thing people. I know Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius were obsessed with their mortality, but you do have some time. You vastly over estimate how much you can do in a day, but what you’re capable of in a year will blow your mind.

Get rich. Make an impact. Get a six pack. Find the perfect partner. Raise the perfect kid. Become a god among men – a prime specimen who causes the unwashed masses to bow down in awe.

Just do it slowly, one step at a time. It won’t work any other way.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Teri March 17, 2014 at 3:02 pm

So much superhero entrepreneuring going on out there! It’s impossible — and it’s really hard not to fall prey to comparing. Thanks for this post. SO important.

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Peter Shallard March 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Teri! Exactly – the thing the article didn’t address is how being part of a group where people play this game can erode your own grasp on your expectations.

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Ian March 17, 2014 at 3:13 pm

This is outstanding and I can totally relate with this based on experience. There really is no other way. I’ve crashed and burned so many times by “splitting” and it has never worked for what I really want to achieve in my lifetime.

This post comes as a great reminder at a time I’m starting to feel and notice this insane splitting myself.

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Peter Shallard March 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm

All-or-nothing usually results in nothing :(

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Ian March 17, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Yes, sadly it often does.

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Sally Slichter March 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Your article brought tears for me. That is what I have been doing and the child inside is dying each day because of it. Thanks so much for an article I needed so badly.

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Peter Shallard March 17, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Hey Sally. Really glad you found your way here. The good news, if this really resonated, is that you’re already doing really well :)

Feel free to email me directly (peter at petershallard.com) if you have any questions or want some support.

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Cory March 18, 2014 at 12:39 am

Good job, Peter. Funny…I realize your hyperbolic metaphor is decidedly masculine…yet so accurately depicts the battle that high achieving women have thrown themselves into for decades. Run the company or surgical suite; have a conscious, mutually sustaining relationship with a total fox; pop out superbly adjusted progeny; mentor subordinates to their highest potential; solve world hunger; and dress, act and look like (substitute airbrushed female role model of choice).

I knew the moment I saw the first skin care line designed for men that it was only a matter of time before guys fell under the spell of Pervasive Masculine Self-doubt (PMS). Ah, the sweet smell of equality…. Lean in, fellas. We’ve been expecting you.

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James Chartrand March 18, 2014 at 6:19 am

That’s funny – the minute I read this, I said the same thing. “Oh, this is like the Superwoman syndrome, only for guys. Got it.” *nods sagely*

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Peter Shallard March 18, 2014 at 10:36 am

Yup! This issue most definitely happens for both genders. I think women probably get more pressure around the “superbly adjusted progeny” – since they have to do the actual popping out too … as you put it.

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Luke March 18, 2014 at 1:53 am

Peter, once again you’ve just described my life. And once again at the perfect time when I needed some direction! I’ve recently decided to start a new business (again), to travel the world (again), to learn Spanish fluently (again), to become a musician (again) to get fit (again) and to eat healthier (again)…amongst other things. I might just pick one to focus on for the immediate future now, thanks :)

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Peter Shallard March 18, 2014 at 10:39 am

HA welcome Luke. Good to have a bonafide superhero join us.

It’s not that you can’t do all those things, it’s simply that you have to stack them incrementally instead of all at once.

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Steffen March 18, 2014 at 8:21 am

Hey Peter,

awesome article. As always!
Being grateful helps me, too.

When starting to figure out our superhuman goals, starting with gratitude doesn’t make me feel like shit.

For example:
I am not ripped – yet :-P – but I am really healthy, not obese, and have some muscles.
So far, so good :-)

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Peter Shallard March 18, 2014 at 10:43 am

Hey Steffen, great point. Gratitude is a huge part of the solution. Being able to think gratefully about what you currently have… is kinda the antithesis of “splitting”… so well done!

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Andy Drish March 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Sometimes i forget how brilliant you are. And then you write something like this. and BOOOMMM… my mind explodes.

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Peter Shallard March 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Dude why the f*** do you forget how brilliant I am? *skeptical squint*

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Neil Kane March 24, 2014 at 10:37 am

Great post. You nailed it. I see a lot of myself in the examples you gave.

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Rohi April 9, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Thanks, Peter.

“All or nothing usually results in nothing.” Very true.

What resonated most for me is the part about holding loved ones to an impossibly high standard and writing them off when they don’t measure up.

Thanks for the reminder.

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Peter Shallard April 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm

As you do unto others, so you tend to do unto yourself. Be careful you’re not using others as a mirror for yourself Rohi ;)

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Rohi April 10, 2014 at 1:11 pm

You are absolutely right, Peter. That, too. Me, too.
To paraphrase you: “Black or white thinking usually result in black thinking / judgment.”
Thanks, again.

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Alec Barron April 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Love this!

I used to be extremely guilty of trying to be an “over optimized entrepreneur” that looked at things from very black and white perspective. If I wasn’t using all my waking hours for business, working out, and learning, I mentally shamed myself for these failures.

One of the big things that has helped me is B.J. Fogg’s practice of “Tiny Habits.” I think anyone who wants to add a habit like exercise or eating healthy can learn from his framework where you start building a habit with the absolute minimum amount.

For example, I teach people to workout right away in the morning, but not to worry about doing some intense long workout. Just do a 2 minute workout with basic callisthenics. Even this is enough to boost your overall energy and stress-management hormones, and it’s easy so people can get a quick win to start building confidence. Eventually this confidence can lead to longer workouts if they want to.

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Peter Shallard April 14, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Love that principal Alec! It’s exactly these types of psychological/behavioral hacks that combat the dangers of the superhuman movement.

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Graham Ballachey April 28, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Wow. I really did not know where my weird Google search was going to take me, but this article resonated hard with me. Thank you Peter.

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Chris P. May 17, 2014 at 10:02 pm

This is a really awesome post. As someone who’s always trying to get more out of life, it’s a great reminder to stop and relax for a minute. While I believe that it’s important to do the best you can, sometimes I forget that I should be proud to be human.

Becoming superman is really fun, but it doesn’t win many friends or increase the inherent value of work or life.

Thanks for sharing,

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Peter Shallard May 19, 2014 at 9:45 am

Hey Chris, glad you found what you needed in this article! Smell those roses :)

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Chris June 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Great article, and extremely timely advice. To take it to heart though, that’s an incredible challenge. Is it really ok to have anything left in the tank at the end of the day? Doesn’t that mean that I didn’t do all I could that day, pushing as far as I could go?

Logically, I understand that rest is needed sometimes. It just feels like the “sometime” is always “later.” And I feel very weak-minded in the goal setting progress. We’re supposed to dream big, right?

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