Is striving holding you back (Part 1)?

How an ingrained habit can turn from help to hindrance

John had always strived towards success, even as a child. He worked hard, got top grades, excelled in sports, and had his eye on the next big thing. This was in part driven by a desire to create a better life from what he experienced growing up, but it was also the clear message he heard from his parents and teachers, and which he internalized over time. Work hard, get ahead, and forge your path to success. From college to career, he stacked up accomplishments and promotions in quick succession.


His secret sauce? He would say it was not that he had to be the smartest person in the room, but that he could outwork and outperform everyone around him. It kept him moving ahead and upwards. Today, at the pinnacle of his career, John recognizes that the ceaseless striving learned since youth was one of the key practices that got him to where he is today.


The challenge for John, and all who have reached similar success, is that striving can outgrow its usefulness. And instead of driving success, it can become a hindrance. It is often marked by intense internal pressure and an incessant drive, and can lead to a lack of clear direction, fatigue, and even the question of what we are striving for in the first place.


Part of the reason is that while we have continued to evolve, our core strategy hasn’t. Striving helped us reach our goals, but now its role is less clear. Over-indexing on striving – namely, a singular focus on adding value, achieving and being productive – often comes at the expense of something of greater value. Instead of problem solving, a given moment might call for helping others rise to the occasion. Or listening, as opposed to dishing out well-meaning advice. Or taking a strategic view, rather than getting mired in the details. In these moments, we may have dialed up the striving too high.


The point here, of course, is not that we shouldn’t hold ourselves and others to high standards. It is simply that striving, when overused, can stand in the way. While we are myopically focused on our own productivity, adding value, and being seen, we are missing the bigger picture. For example, we may focus so much on fixing things that we fail to create opportunities for others to learn and grow. The very thing that got us to where we are today is now impeding our progress