Do It Better

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Why You Don't Need to Be Super Productive

Often it's more important to recognize how you channel your energy than to be "on" all the time

Unrelenting drive is every bit as common in sport as it is in the traditional workplace. (lechatnoir/iStock)
Photo: lechatnoir/iStock desk

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Often it's more important to recognize how you channel your energy than to be "on" all the time

Danielle Steel is a novelist who has written 179 books. She writes seven books annually, rarely sleeps more than five hours a night, and works every day of the year, save a single week of vacation. Steel’s work has been read by hundreds of thousands of people.

Is Steel’s drive and productivity something to be celebrated and emulated?

It depends, at least according to the writer Oliver Burkeman, who recently wrote a column in The Guardian questioning whether or not this kind of work ethic is a good thing: 

Before the dawn of the gig economy, which made it mandatory to celebrate unrelenting toil as proof that you’re a “doer”, we called this workaholism—a compulsive absorption in work, perhaps due to anxiety, or low self-esteem, or the desire to avoid engaging with some more difficult aspect of life.

Unrelenting drive is every bit as common in sport as it is in the traditional workplace. Many athletes of all calibers struggle to turn it off. Some even believe that single-minded obsession is the only route to success in their sport. A great example of unrelenting drive is the movie Free Solo, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. His focus and ardent striving is an absolutely beautiful thing. But it’s not without complexities and trade-offs, especially when it comes to how his girlfriend and friends feel about the pursuit.

Though I’ve never free-soloed a massive peak, I do have some personal and professional experience with unrelenting drive. I’m a pusher. When I wanted to further explore why I’m wired like this and what it means, the way I did it was to literally write a book. I tried to figure out my own drive by doing a very driven thing—the irony of which is not lost on me. The process of writing The Passion Paradox made me realize that unrelenting drive isn’t good or bad. It just is. Here’s some of the stuff I learned that lead to this realization.

Drive Is Part Nature, Part Nurture

Some people may be insensitive to dopamine, the neurochemical associated with drive. This means that they need more of it to feel good, so they keep on pushing. Meanwhile, everyone can become hooked on the cycle of doing and achieving, especially if this behavior was heavily rewarded in childhood. At an extreme, if a developing brain perceives that love is conditional based on how well it does, then that developing brain is going to wire itself to do well and do well all the time. This is only intensified by a culture obsessed with external validation and achievements.

Drive Can Be Wonderful

If it’s born out of flow—a state of full immersion, being totally in the zone—then drive is generally associated with life satisfaction and inner peace. Flow has a lot in common with love. It is a state of complete presence and caring for someone or something. Flow usually involves self-transcendence, which is the goal of most spiritual practices. Not such a bad thing. 

Drive Can Be About Fear

Particularly the fear of death. We endlessly “do” stuff to escape the reality that we are mortal. Facing this reality can be horrifying, especially if we are accustomed to resisting and suppressing it by working. The kind of incessant doing and drive that is born out of fear isn’t always so great. You could argue it’s closer to addiction. Instead of facing the pain of mortality and loss, we numb ourselves with doing, obsession, and productivity.

Drive Can Be About Insecurities

We think that if we can do just one more thing, sell one more book, get one more promotion, then we’ll truly be loved, fit in, feel good about the way we look, be able to rest, etc. Unfortunately, this never works. This mindset often creates more suffering than good feelings.

Most Everyone Who Is Driven Is Fueled by All of the Above 

At different times and in different contexts, these levers may contribute disproportionately. When flow is the main driver, it’s usually OK to keep the energy and momentum going, so long as you’re aware of the trade-offs: what you’re sacrificing and giving up in other areas of your life. If fear or insecurity is fueling your drive, you have two options, which are nonexclusive. You can work on the underlying problem through things like therapy, meditation, contemplation, and sharing vulnerably with trusted communities. Or you can say screw it and point the drive in productive directions, such as creative pursuits, mentoring, or volunteering.

Working on the underlying problem is generally more of a path to long-term freedom. But it’s also hard to completely overcome fear and insecurity, at least for normal people like me. So taking some of that drive and using it isn’t necessarily problematic either. The key is to make sure you harness the drive for worthwhile pursuits that align with your core values. 

People love putting things into clear categories: good or bad, black or white. But the truth about drive and productivity and passion is very much gray. There is no simple answer. These forces can be gifts and curses, sometimes both on the same day. Perhaps the best bet is just to pay honest attention. The more you’re aware of where your drive is coming from, where you’re pointing it, and what you’re giving up as a result to pursue it, the better off you’ll be. 

Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) is a performance coach and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is also bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance.

Filed To: Books / Athletes / Wellness / Performance Insiders