Detaching from the Western view of success
Success, Solitude, and the Burden of Self-Reflection
The Western obsession with goals and achievement leads us away from ourselves and towards burnout, toxic positivity, and depression. We accept this because we also accept the idea that pain is what leads to success.
We accept that we have to isolate and destroy ourselves in order to be great.
But when is pain coming at the expense of a goal, and when is it just pain for pain itself?
What is the point of this obsession with creating our own suffering?
Is there an alternative, or is that just a naive pipedream?
“Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.” ― Naval Ravikant
An Obsession with Results
For most of my life, I was taught to set a goal and force myself to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. That’s how I was raised and that’s how a lot of us were raised. That’s how you succeed in our society.
For example, if my goal was to make a certain weight class and win a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu match, I’d train as if it was the last match that I would ever compete in and a public hanging was the consequence for defeat.
I’d ignore signs of my body and mind breaking down and persist anyway. I thought this was heroic. It’s called grit, and there are studies about the importance of it for achievement.
But this grit also comes at a physical and mental cost. For myself, it’s been injuries, burnout, and fairly severe depression.
We’re told that the pain is worth it in the end. The reality is, sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t.
I‘ve been in places where I was putting so much pressure on myself to succeed that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t prepare effectively to achieve, and wanted to give up just as badly as I wanted to succeed.
A New Approach
Before you write me off as a whiny loser, I’m not saying that ambition is the source of our toxic “hustle culture”. I am saying that ignoring your health in the name of goals that aren’t even yours is a path to suicide, not a success.
Self-awareness is more important than whatever the culture tells you you’re supposed to want or do. Yet, self-reflection is difficult, painful, and unforgiving work that no one has time for. #selfreflection is irrelevant compared to #grind.
This is a path that leads to mediocrity at best and self-destruction at worst.
Everything in my life revolved around an obsession with winning that Jiu-Jitsu world title.
The problem was that I also believed that that obsession with my goals was the only way to have a meaningful life. Everything else in life was second to becoming a champion.
If I couldn’t do something, it was likely because I was flawed or weak. If I couldn’t take more pain, that was my problem.
It made my work counterproductive. I became a serial underperformer, and I was miserable.
I had no relationships, very few friends, and eventually was in a constant state of dissociation. Any friends I still had were confused by what I was doing to myself.
“Maybe just… I don’t know… take a break?” they’d say.
I refused to settle for anything less than the success I believed I deserved.
Then, one day, I hurt my knee, badly. As an athlete, this sent my identity into disarray. The doctor said I had a minor injury that would heal in weeks, but the pain and frequent dislocations never subsided.
The mystery of the injury made me believe my athletic career was over and that there was nothing left to live for. I was in limbo, and I felt betrayed by my goals.
All I had wanted before the injury was a break, but then the injury made it appear that I was going to have to quit the sport that had given me an identity since I was 12 years old. My goals were a lost cause, and as a result, my discipline was non-existent. I was just as miserable without my goals as I was with them.
So what did I do?
I was stuck in the house, fresh off of surgery, and unable to walk. So, I just did all I could do: I got real. I reflected on my entire existence. I looked back instead of forward.
I stopped thinking about the goals that I was obsessed with.
According to the culture, you’re supposed to think that “goals are essential to life” or what we do defines our identity. That is a lie that people use to deny the reality that the world will continue to exist with or without their goals.
In reality, I felt afraid of failure, weakness, and external judgment. I didn’t want goals, but I wanted to not feel sad and goals helped me do that.
When I returned to real life after knee surgery, physical therapy, and months of feeling aimless. I was on a new path that wasn’t defined by the goals I’d set before. I was trying to be present in my life. I tried to stop viewing myself as a mere vessel to achieve success.
I decided that being the best version of myself isn’t just about winning titles or achieving goals. Success to me is a moral responsibility to behaviors that are in line with what I believe. It’s living in accordance with my own code, not the code that the culture has decided I must pursue.
Managing My Systems
In the time since my surgery and most intense burnout, I haven’t completely removed goals from my life. I just am no longer married to them. Like James Clear says in the bestseller Atomic Habits, I focus on perfecting my systems instead. I try to think day to day, instead of 15 years into the future.
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” — James Clear
Goals will likely change and adapt to your changing life. Systems remain constant. During the Covid pandemic, most athletes were forced to delay their goals. They were not forced to delay our daily systems. Those who kept finding ways to improve in the face of adversity are thriving now.
Once you have built the discipline to maintain a system, you can apply it to anything.
Systems are a key to daily discipline. You have to train your brain to do difficult things. But once you succeed in mastering your own will, why not get creative and flex that discipline muscle in new ways to create a more exciting life? If you have discipline, you can apply it to everything.
Goals are great, but how do you feel about the process that’s are required to achieve those goals? If you hate the idea of them, they’ll never stick. Even if they do, you’ll be unhappy.
The more your happiness is intertwined with your goals, the more your emotions will be unstable because the pursuit of success is non-linear. When your emotions are unstable, it will be harder to achieve your goals and you’ll spend even more of your time being unhappy.
That’s partially why many Olympians report severe depression after competing. They neglect their emotions in favor of pursuing their goal. There’s a cost to everything we do, and the cost of neglecting your emotional well-being over long periods of time is mental health issues.
But can you have both emotional stability and the pursuit of greatness?
The culture says no. It says that pain is what drives people to succeed. They say madness requires greatness.
I believe that pain can drive people to succeed. But saying that pain is the only cause for success is short-sighted. It’s meaning that creates success, it’s a cultural obsession with pain and suffering that destroys people’s lives.
According to Viktor Frankl, meaning can come from love, work, or the overcoming of suffering. American culture chooses to focus on suffering.
Pain, suffering, and success are deeply rooted in the Western model of masculinity, but in reality, success is an subjective human construct. Success to me is different than success to you. If success is subjective, so are the motivating factors that create it.
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater.” — Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning
If you convince yourself that failing at your specific goal really feels like dying, you might die thousands of times in your life. If that sounds incredibly unpleasant to you, maybe it’s time to find another way.
Instead of focusing on how much pain you can tolerate and still succeed, focus on mastering yourself and your mind. Focus on discipline, love, and meaning.
These are the concepts that can make people’s lives for the better and change the world.
Self Reflection Leads to More Fulfilling Success
I trust my discipline and I trust the process to attain success. Because I trust the process, I can find meaning in the monotony of the day to day grind.
Meaning makes it easier to maintain discipline when I feel the exhaustion that removes some of the joy.
In my experience, romanticizing suffering leads to debilitating mental health problems, not gold medals or bestsellers.
The beauty of the pursuit is the small moments, and it’s the small moments that will tumble you forward towards that success that everyone is so damn obsessed with.
“If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.”
― Miyamoto Musashi