What if striving to be great is what's holding you back?
“Good is the enemy of great” is one of the most popular self-improvement expressions there is. It’s the first sentence of an international bestselling business book, the title of another self-help book, and a mantra that NFL superstar J.J. Watt has used in press conferences. It sounds appealing and rolls off the tongue nicely, but there’s a good chance it’s downright wrong.
We’re told that striving to be great and never being satisfied are necessary to meet the ever increasing pressures and pace of today’s world. It’s the only route to success. But what is it all for? What does success even mean? Rates of clinical anxiety and depression are higher than ever. Some experts believe that loneliness and social isolation have reached epidemic proportions. Two-thirds of all employees report feeling burned out at work. Surely this isn’t the kind of success that everyone is after.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers that true success means feeling content with the unfolding of your life. It is “finding happiness in your work and life, in the here and the now.”
The kind of success that Thich Nhat Hanh champions isn’t about striving to be great all the time. It’s about being at least OK with where you are, about accepting good enough. What’s interesting is that not always trying so damn hard to be great isn’t just the path to being happier; it’s also the path to getting better.
This mindset improves confidence and releases pressure because you don’t always feel like you’re coming up short. It also lessens the risk of injury—emotional and physical—since there isn’t a perceived need to put forth heroic efforts every day. The result is more consistent performance that compounds over time. Research shows that sustainable progress, in everything from diet to fitness to creativity, isn’t about being consistently great; it’s about being great at being consistent. It’s about being good enough over and over again.
A wonderful case study is Eliud Kipchoge, who just shattered the marathon world record. He’s literally the best in the world at what he does. Yet Kipchoge says that the key to his success is not overextending himself in training. He’s not fanatical about trying to be great all the time. Instead, he has an unwavering dedication to being good enough. He recently told The New York Times that he rarely, if ever, pushes himself past 80 percent—90 percent at most—of his maximum effort during workouts. This allows Kipchoge to string together weeks and weeks of consistent training. “I want to run with a relaxed mind,” he says.
Unlike so many other runners who have tried and failed to break the world marathon record, Kipchoge has never been obsessed with the mark. Prior to his record-setting race, when asked about his mindset, he told The Times, “To be precise, I am just going to try to run my personal best. If it comes as a world record, I would appreciate it. But I would treat it as a personal best.” Kipchoge puts running in its place, which, for him, is in the here and now, not in striving to meet ever increasing expectations. “When I run,” he says, “I feel good. My mind feels good. I sleep in a free way, and I enjoy life.”
It’s a paradox. A good-enough mindset might very well be the key to being great and happy. The less you want to be happy, the happier you’ll be. The less you need to perform better, the better you’ll perform. Just think about your own life. During the times you were happiest and performed best, were you striving? Were you chasing after something? Or were you more like Kipchoge—grounded, at peace, and feeling good enough with what was in front of you? This doesn’t mean you should never desire productive change or improvement. Quite the opposite, actually. Though they may run counter to so much of the current ethos, adopting the following core principles of good enough is likely the best route to being happier and getting better.
Accept Where You Are
Ultra-endurance athlete, author, and personal-growth icon Rich Roll once told me, “You’ve got to train where you’re at. Not where you think you could be, not where you want to be, not where you used to be, but where you are right now.”
Far too often we suffer from magical thinking, convincing ourselves that we’re in a better place than we are. Or we ignore our problems altogether, either numbing or distracting ourselves or striving to make things better without ever acknowledging our true starting point. Though this may save us some short-term pain, it’s not a good long-term solution. Because we don’t address the thing that really needs addressing—whether it’s poor mobility in sport, loneliness in a relationship, or being overwhelmed at the workplace. Progress in anything requires confronting and accepting where you are. It’s only then that you can do something about it.
“Acceptance,” writes the meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn in his bestselling masterpiece Full Catastrophe Living, “does not mean passive resignation. Not at all. It means taking a reading of a situation, feeling it and embracing it as completely as one can manage, however challenging or horrible it may be, and recognizing that things are as they are, independent of our liking or disliking and wanting it to be different.” Only then, writes Kabat-Zinn, can we take the appropriate action to improve our condition. “A desire for things to be other than the way they actually are is simply wishful thinking,” he writes. “It is not a very effective way of bringing about real change.”
Most people want results now. But generally speaking, results don’t work like that. Consider diet. Drawn to the latest and trendiest approach, many people who are trying to lose weight constantly bounce between fads: low-carb, high-fat; low-fat, high-carb; South Beach; Atkins; DASH; Zone; Ornish; intermittent fasting—the list goes on and on. The continual switching is actually detrimental to losing weight. A 2018 study out of Stanford University compared low-fat and low-carb diets, also tracking randomly assigned participants for a year. The best predictor of weight loss wasn’t which diet the participants were assigned to but whether or not they adhered to that diet. Writing about these results in The New York Times, Aaron Carroll, a physician and researcher at the Indiana School of Medicine, explains that “Successful diets over the long haul are most likely ones that involve slow and steady changes.”
The same theme is true for just about any persistent change, whether it’s in performance, happiness, or both. If you rush the process or expect results too swiftly, you’ll end up disappointed over and over again. When I was going through an immense challenge in my own life, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from a doctor who told me, “Be patient, it’s a nine-inning game.”
Our society celebrates “optimization.” So it’s only natural that we would want to optimize ourselves. But our brains don’t work like computers. Studies show that when we multitask, our brains either constantly switch between tasks or divide and conquer, allotting only a portion of our cognitive capacity to a specific task. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that though we think we’re getting twice as much done when we multitask, we’re actually getting only about half as much done.
It's not just our performance that suffers when we’re all over the place but our happiness, too. A Harvard study found that when people are fully present for the activity they're doing, they are much happier than when they’re thinking about something else. Unfortunately, nowadays we’re more distracted than ever, almost always thinking about something else. We may think that if we’re not online 24/7 we’ll miss out on something and fall behind. But perhaps it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re online 24/7, we’ll miss out on everything.
Social media is full of people making posts as if everything in their lives is perfect. It’s an illusion—and a costly one. Researchers from Stanford University found that social media portrays an overly rosy view of life. As a result, many people think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are, a misperception that can lead to distress. Moreover, trying to live up to an inflated public persona—be it your online self or your workplace self—creates what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, or an inconsistency between who you portray yourself to be and who you actually are. This inconsistency is often associated with anxiety.
Stop trying so damn hard to be invincible, and just be yourself. The research of University of Houston professor Brene Brown demonstrates that the more you can bring your entire self to everything you do—the good, the bad, the sad, and the ugly—the better you’ll feel and the better you’ll be. You’ll not only eliminate emotionally draining cognitive dissonance, but also forge more genuine connections with others, opening yourself up to support when you need it. “Vulnerability doesn’t come from trust,” Brown writes. “Trust comes from vulnerability.” Recent experimental data suggests that this is because deep down inside, most everyone dislikes having to pretend they’ve got all their shit together. When you let your guard down and get real, others feel relieved and gain the confidence to do the same.
Foster an “In-Real-Life” Community
Perhaps one of the most detrimental consequences of digital technology is the illusion of connection. We think that if we can tweet, post, text, e-mail, or even call someone, we’re good. After all, digital relationships save us the time and coordination of meeting in person, which in turn allows us to be überproductive—or so we tell ourselves. But here’s the thing: nothing can replace in-person community, and our failed attempts to do so come at a grave cost.
In their book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, Harvard psychiatry professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz profile the rise of loneliness and decline of meaningful relationships. An increased focus on “productivity and the cult of busyness,” they write, has led to a sharp decline in deep communities and a rise in social isolation and related mood disorders. Other research shows that physical touch itself is critical for happiness, comfort, and belonging. In-person community is also key to performance. Multiple studies show that wearable technologies don’t come close to the power of “in-real-life” friends when it comes to making positive behavior changes. And this is true at all levels. Defending New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan has repeatedly credited her training community (not her Instagram followers) for her longevity and success. “I don’t think I’d still be running if not for my training partners,” she says. “These women support me through both highs and lows.”
Bottom line: The extra effort it takes to regularly be with others “in real life” is worth it.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.