Strive At Your Own Risk

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Human beings are strivers.  This has been a common theme of different theories of psychology over the years: we thrive on accomplishment.  You could argue that this human need for mastery goes all the way back to the first amoeba struggling to crawl its way out of the primordial slime.  We have a deeply rooted need to better our lot in life, either through self-improvement or through mastery over our environment.

“Accomplishment” or “Achievement” represents the “A” or the fifth pillar in “PERMA,” Marty Seligman’s classification of human flourishing (the first four pillars being Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, and Meaning.)  For him, accomplishment is a recent addition to his theory of what drives human wellbeing.

But it’s not new to the science of psychology.  Self-Determination Theory defined a “need for competence” as one of three essential “nutriments” humans require for growth.  And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced us to the concept of “Flow,” showing that humans are at their best when they are learning new things and overcoming challenges.

But accomplishment has a dark side too.  A recent research study found that people who are ambitious, while they do create greater wealth and success for themselves, they do not convert much of that success into increased satisfaction with life, and ultimately, they do not live as long as their less ambitious counterparts.  Striving for success comes at a cost.

And Douglas LaBier, a “business psychologist” and Huffington Post blogger, recently wrote another article on “the dark side of success.” He cites the “enormous toll” that success takes “on people’s emotions and overall lives.”  Successful career advancement can lead to anxiety, depression, and a variety of other emotional conflicts.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that ambition and success might be linked to a feeling of dissatisfaction.  A key part of my success in the world of luxury hospitality is to be dissatisfied with the status quo.  To always wonder how we could do better.  To notice details that are wrong (like a pillow out of place or a smudge on a glass) or to confront the greatest challenges affecting my business.  I could even argue that being dissatisfied is a great motivator and a key to success.

For those who do strive for ever greater and greater outcomes, this becomes a habit–to always notice what is wrong or what needs to be fixed.  In a customer service industry, a healthy negativity bias can help you to anticipate problems before they arise, or exceed customer expectations by noticing potential problems before your customers do.

We tend to think that success, health and happiness go hand in hand (in hand) but research shows that it is far more complex than that.  We thrive on accomplishment, but with accomplishment comes stress, which is linked to negative emotions and negative health consequences?  So how much success should we strive for?

Todd Kashdan

Todd Kashdan

Todd Kashdan, Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, talks about these kinds of “psychological tradeoffs” with his students.  We like to believe we can have it all, but life is complex and we are regularly trading one wellbeing benefit for another one.  So what is the best way to navigate these complexities?

According to Kashdan, it comes down to values:

If you value longevity and peace more than accomplishment, for example, then an austere life of tranquil meditation and a vegetarian diet may be the best for you.  Striving is almost the opposite of mindfulness, and accomplishment means taking on risks and stress that could take years off your life.

But maybe longevity and happiness are not the most important things in the world.  Perhaps there are things that you value more.  Some people will strap a bomb to their body or fly a plane into a building in order to accomplish what they feel is important.  Others will rush into a burning building in an effort to save complete strangers.  Do you think they care if a research study finds that striving to do great things shaves a few years off of your life?

When you read research studies talking about the dark side of success, ask yourself the question that Kashdan asks his students:  “Would you be willing to have an ambitious life devoted to passionate pursuits if it cut a few years off your life?”

I know my answer.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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14 Responses to Strive At Your Own Risk

  1. Judy Krings August 20, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Great read, Jeremy.

    I read this 3 times and sat down with myself.

    What I decided (me, who was called a kamikaze pilot some years ago) was I was glad I did not know what my genetic life span would have been without all my movin’ and shakin’. My mojo needs and wants to accomplish, just a tad less now that I am approaching Medicare not that that really has a meaning to me.I hope my quest to die with a book, computer or ipad open to positive psychology research still lights my fires of learning fun till my last day.

  2. Senia August 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    I assume your answer is Yes. 🙂

  3. tiggy August 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Jeremy – I would have thought that to walk the talk in your industry you would have to respond no.

    Todd as usual doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. I don’t meditate for peace of mind – I meditate to proactively reduce the impact that stress has on my life and for the other benefits like improved performance. Perhaps meditation allows you to have it all – well perhaps a suitable compromise.

    quack quack quack quack

  4. quackwatch August 24, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Jeremy, The US seems obsessed with accomplishment (I guess that’s why Seligman added the A in PERMA with no evidence).

    But this does come at a cost – people obsessed with accomplishment have poor nutrition, sleep habits, exercise minimally and often have poor relationships. And the impact is profound – think obesity, depression etc.

    The trade off is not a few years – its many years of life plus the compromised level of health.

    As always Todd’s thinking is short term – almost childish. It’s time he grew up.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy August 25, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

    tiggy/quackwatch/oz, Your comments are repetitive, predictable and increasingly juvenile. I think by now you’ve made it clear to anyone who will listen that you don’t like Todd, and you don’t like PP. We get it. Is there anything else you want to say? p.s. Why so many aliases?

  6. Katie Curran August 26, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    Hello my friend,

    Somehow I had wandered away from reading your blog regularly and am quite glad that it was the first item on my newsfeed this morning. Thanks for getting my brain going in the way your musings often do. I know my answer.

  7. quackwatch August 26, 2013 at 7:29 am #

    Jeremy – I’m still interested in your response the question

    Are you going to walk the talk or is it just empty rhetoric?

    And sorry – yes the quack thing was a little juvenile. But isn’t PP juvenile – its just stating off and finding its legs.

  8. quackwatch August 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    Jeremy – I think you would have to agree that Todd latest escapades on the PP list serve reinforce my comments.

  9. Jeremy McCarthy August 26, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    quack/tiggy/oz, I don’t agree with everything Todd says or does, but when he criticizes someone he does it using his own name and he provides enough substantiation for his position (either citing research or explaining himself) that I can either understand where he is coming from or have an intelligent discussion with him about it. Your repetitive one-line insults under the cover of an alias do not contribute anything new to the dialogue and are not as much my style.

    As for your other question, I don’t understand what you mean. What do you think is “the talk” of my industry?

  10. Jeremy McCarthy August 26, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    Hi Katie, Good to see you here! Hope we can connect in person again soon! xo, J

  11. quackwatch August 27, 2013 at 6:03 am #

    Jeremy – I do have it wrong. The spa industry wants people stressed by being obsessed with accomplishment. No stress no business.

    Juts a heads up – Mr Kashdan selectively quotes his research. If you read his research you would know this.


    I think its sad when a strong mind like yours succumbs to the duck mentality.

  12. David J. Pollay August 27, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Thought provoking, Jeremy.

    Another good article.

    I vote for a good life first…with the hope of it being long, too.

    Thanks for your good work.



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