The Paradox of Proficient Striving

“What would you do if you knew you would fail?”

– Seth Godin, on The Tim Ferriss Show

In positive psychology circles, we’re used to being confronted with the opposite of this question: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

While liberating at first glance, imagining a future without failure only feeds the cynical perfectionist within us, who will only go after something if it believes it will win.

What if the point of striving towards a goal, is not to accomplish the goal itself? What if achieving the goal is just icing on the cake? What if the real treasure is in becoming the person the goal requires us to become in order to achieve it?

The real secret of being able to chase a goal, and give it everything you have, is to abandon the psychological need to succeed (yes, that rhymed).

This is the paradox of proficient striving: those who put their whole heart and soul into realizing a vision, a passion or a project —while actually enjoying the process—can do so because they are unattached from the outcome. They view life as play, and the pursuit of passion as an end in itself.

How can I release my desire to accomplish the goal, and still chase it with everything I’ve got?

Well, it comes from a solid base belief and understanding that all of life is ultimately play. No matter how furrowed our brows or how steep the fluctuations of the stock market, at the end of the day, this is all a game for adults. This is how someone can chase a dream and be on the brink of its achievement, only to change paths at the eleventh hour. It’s not because they don’t want to accomplish the goal, but because the primary pursuit is passion, not accomplishment. When we follow our curiosity, we embody a chidlike openness which is our natural state of existence.

“Anxiety is experiencing failure before it happens.”

– Seth Godin, on The Tim Ferriss Show

That leads us to the grand question: if you knew you would fail, what would still be worthwhile? What wouldn’t you regret striving for, because the journey of its pursuit was fulfilling on its own? What would you go towards with your whole heart and soul, knowing that at the end of the day, you’d come home with a full heart and empty hands?

The paradox of proficient striving points to another truth about moving towards our goals: if joy and play are the ultimate purpose, anxiety has no role on the journey. Anxiety is an attachment to a desired outcome which is beyond our control. Within our control are only two things: our target, and the steps we take towards reaching it. Whether or not we get there is entirely unknown to us, even if we work within the laws of physics. Life is an uncertain game, and that’s the long and short of it. So approach it as play, because that’s all you’re doing, whether you take it seriously or not.


Do you think stress and anxiety are necessary to achieve your goals? Let us know in the comments below ↓

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