In our first book, Peak Performance, Steve Magness and I wrote that setting a goal and then throwing your all into pursuing it is one of the best feelings there is. In our second book, The Passion Paradox, we warned about the dangers of obsessive passion, or becoming too focused on achieving an external goal. And in an essay that was published prior to the release of The Passion Paradox, titled “The Case for Being Good Enough,” I argued that oftentimes it is someone’s striving to be great that is the very thing getting in the way of their actually being great.
What gives? Are striving, relentless pursuit, and passion good qualities to admire or are they bad things to avoid? Or, depending on circumstances, might these qualities have the potential to be both?
I’ve always struggled to find words that capture the non-dualistic nature of striving, passion, and pursuit. So I was thrilled when I came across a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry in which Jack Kornfield writes:
“As we grow on the spiritual path [i.e., cultivating a better understanding ourselves and our world] desire and passion, too, are understood in a new way…Instead of condemning all desire, we engage in it with wisdom and sensitivity. We see the world as a play of desire, and the difference between unskillful and skillful desire becomes apparent…
…The necessary fire or fullness is not to be confused with ambition, striving, or grasping after a goal. It is not an effort to improve ourselves or to attain something special. In the boon of aliveness we ask not to get to the end of an imagined journey, but to be fully where we are.”
In other words, the type of passion (or striving, desire, pursuit, effort—whatever you want to call it) that is skillful is an energy that situates you fully in the present moment. Modern psychological science calls this flow or harmonious passion: a state of being totally absorbed in what you’re doing, completely in the zone. A few decades before, the humanist philosopher and psychotherapist Erich Fromm called it productive activity: growing closer to yourself—the real goal—in the pursuit of outward, secondary goals. Over 2000 years ago the Buddha called this right effort.
The kind of passion, striving, desire, etc. that latches you on to achieving some kind of external badge or destination, on the other hand, manifests as a narrow craving and an energy that is constantly looking ahead. Modern psychological science calls this obsessive passion, or being reliant on external achievement in order not to experience negative feelings. Over 2000 years ago, the Buddha, who may very well be the original gangster of psychology, called this suffering.
And herein lies the rub. Passion, striving, pursuit, and desire can have different textures. When we are young and insecure they often manifest as the looking ahead and craving external validation variety. But if we are lucky and gain a little wisdom, eventually the texture shifts; the energy of our passion and striving becomes less about achieving a goal and more about being right here, right now; less about becoming a champion or physician or lawyer or millionaire or whatever and more about becoming a truer version of ourselves, about having a richer experience of the present moment. The great irony, as Steve and I wrote in The Passion Paradox, is that “those who are focused least on success and most on being present in the process of their lives are the most likely to achieve success.”
Another way to get at the non dualistic nature of striving is this: Setting a goal to reach the peak of a mountain (be it literal or metaphorical) can be great. And yet if the whole way up you are craving that peak—or worse yet, craving to post on social media about that peak—you’ll ultimately end up suffering. If, on the other hand, you are present for the journey, perhaps at times even forgetting about the peak altogether, you’ll experience lasting joy. It’s the same goal and destination but a very different kind of energy along the way.
Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.