Back in 2009, I was an ambitious student doing my master’s degree in security intelligence at the University of Pittsburgh, and I had a dirty little secret: I was the last student admitted into the program, given barely three weeks’ notice to find an apartment in a new city and show up for my first class. I had applied to several security programs near my hometown on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., but I didn’t get accepted into any of them. This knowledge that I was the runt of the litter would haunt me throughout graduate school and into the early years of my career.
To make matters worse, most of the students in the security program were already working professionals with accomplished resumes that included real life experience in the U.S. security and policymaking circles. I came in with a degree in English literature. On the first day of class, I also found out I was missing three years’ worth of prerequisite math and economics courses.
I compensated for this situation by becoming an over-the-top perfectionist. It served me well academically and later professionally, but psychologically I was in hell. For years, I thought I was alone. It wasn’t until recently, as I began mentoring interns and junior employees at my company, that I started to realize perfectionism wasn’t only fairly common among high-achieving people; perfectionism is on the rise among the younger population, and it’s causing real health problems.
According to a recent report from the American Psychological Association, today’s college students are reporting higher levels of perfectionism than earlier generations, leading to an increase in anxiety and depression. In fact, this desire to achieve paired with being overly critical of oneself is taking a toll on the younger generation’s mental health to the point where psychologists are issuing public warnings.
The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean that each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re making ourselves sicker, sadder, and more likely to burn out.
So, how do we strive to achieve great things without burning ourselves out? What I didn’t understand back in grad school was that there was a fine line between performing with excellence and crippling perfectionism. I hope that my story will explain this difference and shed light on how one can reach for the stars without crashing to the ground.
From a practical standpoint, based on how far behind I was on the first day of school, it made sense to take some extreme measures regarding my studies. I was practicing what ex-Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin would term “extreme ownership” in their pivotal book on the topic published in 2015. Extreme ownership denotes the practice of taking responsibility for whatever is in your power to affect, to an extreme degree. As Willink puts it, “You must own everything in your world. There is no one else to blame.”
In the intro to their book, Willink and Babin explain that as battlefield leaders they chose to write Extreme Ownership to share the valuable lessons they learned about success and failure in an extreme environment applied to everyday life. Their focus was less on how mistakes were made and more about how to intensely dissect them in order to learn and improve future actions. It is within this world of discipline, they believe, that individuals find true freedom. They admit it’s not an easy path, but that it is a necessity for deep learning and growth.
If practiced correctly, extreme ownership is an empowering mindset that helps one prioritize and execute their goals. On the first day of school and then later when I returned to Israel to pursue a career in the intelligence community, I knew intuitively that I needed to approach everything I did with intense diligence. So, I took what I thought was extreme responsibility. I spent hours into the night in the library reading through the prerequisite textbooks, until I fell asleep with my cheek stuck to the textbook pages. Instead of socializing with the other students, I took advantage of the professors’ after hours and requested assistance with homework.
No breaks, no excuses. Rest was for the weak.
When I received top scores on an exam, I was enormously relieved, but it was short-lived. I was mad at myself for not knowing more, for not knowing as much as the other students. I was constantly comparing myself to them and I was coming up short. Before I knew it, I was practicing extreme ownership on steroids—that is to say, I was going beyond its cool-headed application by practically flagellating myself into exhaustion.
I was causing myself a lot of unnecessary grief by going beyond extreme responsibility to internalizing every mistake I made until I was practically buckling under the weight of my own perfectionism. I had stepped into the dark side of extreme ownership, twisting its principles.
So, what was the antidote to this unhealthy perspective? I found it years later in a social commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the UK.
In his Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Rabbi Sacks analyzes the difference between shame cultures and guilt cultures—and ultimately why Jews view a guilt culture as preferable for moral growth. In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others; people in shame cultures are other-directed. (In today’s world, we would say such people care about their “image.”) By contrast, people in guilt cultures are inner-directed. They care about what they know about themselves in moments of absolute honesty.
In a guilt culture, what really matters is that you know you acted righteously. Alternatively, if you are actually guilty of sin, you are encouraged to acknowledge your role—without the sin permanently defining your identity. Judaism chooses this type of culture because it emphasizes acting truthfully, taking responsibility, learning from your mistakes, and setting things right—the precursor for growth.
Shame cultures are not only collective and conformist—they are also unforgiving. Without forgiveness, man is irredeemable; there is no second chance, no opportunity for growth. This is why Judaism rejects such a culture.
We all make mistakes, but as a basic human right we should be granted the opportunity to respond to our mistakes, to make atonement, to take ownership, and ultimately to be forgiven. The negative aspects of shame culture can also be applied to how we view ourselves even without external social pressures; if we see ourselves as not worthy of forgiveness after making a mistake, we risk needlessly making ourselves irredeemable in our own eyes.
Forgiveness was the key ingredient that was missing from my extreme ownership attitude in my early security career years. I made mistakes, I rapidly took responsibility for my errors in a way that seemed honorable, but I didn’t know how to forgive myself. I let the mistakes weigh me down long after they had been corrected. I turned myself into an anxious insomniac, obsessively recounting my faults at night into the wee hours, even as I rose through the ranks in my class to graduate in the top ten percent. As my career progressed, on the outside I was looking more and more like a success story; on the inside I was exhausted, and that is frankly a poor way to live.
Ultimately, I had to learn how to internalize lessons learned without crippling myself with excessive blame. I had to understand how to take responsibility for my own actions without condemning myself to eternal damnation.
I have no doubt that if the Navy SEALs met Rabbi Sacks they would have been in agreement: by all means, be brutally honest about your actions, follow up with corrective measures, strive to become the best version of yourself possible. Just don’t beat yourself to death over your mistakes, because then there will be nothing left of you to improve upon. I’m glad to say I’ve grown past that.