Being driven without being driven crazy

I’m curious about the state of being driven, and how to do it in a healthy way. Is it possible to really want something, and – crucially – find the motivation to do what’s needed to achieve it, without risking total devastation if this fails? (Or a heart attack in the process?!)

Last summer, Venus Williams was defeated in the first round of Wimbledon. Due to Sjögren’s syndrome she hadn’t been performing anywhere near her top level. I watched her tell the interviewer (I’m paraphrasing what I can remember): “I don’t really get down on myself. I feel like I’m a really great tennis player who’s dealing with some very difficult circumstances right now.”

I was really impressed by her composure, her ability to accept a failure graciously and to discuss it in a calm, realistic way immediately afterwards. As a highly successful, accomplished person, she can hardly be said to lack motivation, either. I was left wondering: how does she do that?

I’ve just finished reading “The Mindful Way Through Depression“, which gave me a couple of ideas on how this might be possible. Firstly – and this is something I’ve thought of before (and probably written of before) – it helps to realise that there are many paths to the fulfillment of our dreams or desires; our specific goals may represent just one path. Focussing too narrowly on that one path will lead to a lot of stress and a feeling of helplessness, as if your life will be ruined in the event of failure to reach those goals. Broadening the perspective helps.

I strongly believe that dreams and wants are an important part of a healthy life. We seem to be happiest when we are working towards a goal in an engaged state. One of my main concerns about meditation or Buddhism has been that it may act to reduce such wanting. But if mindful awareness is really about clarity, about our innate wisdom naturally freeing us from unhelpful mindsets once these are seen clearly enough, then it should support a broadening of perspective around our goals, not the removal of core motivations (which are probably also innate). It might even enhance the feeling of fulfillment as we stop to notice our achievements and really experience the happy feelings.

The second idea is that when fear plays a big part in driving us at any moment, we are much more stressed. Our creativity is also hindered (the book describes an experiment where this was demonstrated) – which I guess only feeds into the stress. Being in a stressed state, unpleasant enough in itself, is likely to make dealing with any setbacks even harder.

It’s not just black-and-white thinking about goals that triggers a fear of things going wrong. When what you are trying to do is just plain challenging, then there is always an uncertainty about whether you’ll make it, and it can be very uncomfortable living with that.

Being proactive and engaged with difficult tasks is something I’ve worked on cultivating in myself – it’s positive, and necessary. But it can go too far. It’s possible to get caught in endless striving to feel comfortable by doing more and more, trying to get on top of it, which just has the opposite effect after a certain point. The uncertainty and discomfort can never be fully removed, unless the task reaches an end – yet the illusion is that a bit more work will always be helpful – so we risk burning ourselves out unless we find a way to stop or slow down.

Fear of failure used to render me disengaged, with my head in the sand… I did not see that this same fear would eventually bring a hazard of being “over-engaged”!

The book describes the more healthy state in terms of “being present” and “operating in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode”, but these descriptions don’t quite work for me. (Mindless striving is quite different from being in ‘flow’, although they are both types of ‘doing’. They also both seem to involve being engaged with something in the present.) For me, I think it’s mostly about being engaged with primary experiences, sensations, thoughts – the whole inner landscape. Being in ‘flow’, or other experiences where creativity seems to be at one’s fingertips, like a moment of joy in peeling back the curtain to find a snow-covered world… these are characterised by an openness towards what is here rather than aversion to it.

There seem to be many routes to this state of mind. Mindfulness is just one, but seems a pretty powerful one. It breaks the compulsion to strive away from discomfort when this is not working: it invites us instead to make room for those uncomfortable feelings; to hold them in full awareness for a change – then we may recognise, all on our own, that letting them tyrannise us into chasing our tail isn’t as helpful as it seems to promise. (The emphasis in mindfulness practice on not having goals, not judging anything, not having expectations, is just to support the breaking of this compulsion, as far as I can see – just to upset the pattern for a moment; not to erase the goals.)

I’m going to give it a proper try. Meanwhile, what other tricks/habits/attitudes make it possible to be committed to pursuing our dreams and ambitions without going crazy? Please share!

This entry was posted in meditation, personal reflection, science, self-improvement, spiritual, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Being driven without being driven crazy

  1. From my perspective, persistence is far more important than some driven frenzied carnival of determined self-induced epiphany. The longest journey is one step at a time rivers are fed a drop at a time. It is important to recognize the power of incremental changes over time because they are the ones that offer the greatest and most lasting effects. In addition, pushing too hard too fast is one of the ways depression tricks its victims into preserving that self-same toxic biological stew. The other way is withdraw and isolation. In either case, persistence overcomes resistance.

    Something that can help you get a better understanding of why this approach works better is the idea of ego depletion. In people, pushing too hard can sometimes cause a backlash that destroys the very progress made by the act of pushing too hard.

    All the best to you.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, what you’re describing as persistence sounds like a healthy middle ground between “head in the sand” and “over-engaged”.

      Thanks for the link – ego depletion is an interesting idea. I can definitely sense a decreased ability to cope with upsets or feeling more overwhelmed when I’ve been pushing myself too hard.

  2. Marahm says:

    Part of preoccupation with goal-setting, striving, and achievement, is the stage of life in which one is functioning. Young people know instinctively, if not from the urging of their elders, that early adulthood is the period in which achievement is best accomplished, and goal-setting–with all its subsequent striving– is most appropriate.

    You seem to have good grasp on the necessity of keeping one’s balance, recognizing that achievement of goals is not completely dependent upon the effort of the goal-setter. Life’s events are often brought about by a combination of luck, circumstance, and directed effort.

    When I was young, my father always said: “You have to attend college, get a degree, get a good job, have something to fall back on.”

    “…something to fall back on, ” meant that in case my marriage ended in divorce, I’d be able to support myself. He was teaching me that the future is unpredictable. One must be ready and willing to sidestep in any direction from the desired path. That’s the distillation of “mindfulness,” I think.

    • Sarah says:

      I can definitely see that it is a stage of life thing. I haven’t been particularly goal-driven through my youth, and now that I’m in my thirties, it’s catching up on me – I suddenly see it all passing me by if I don’t reach out and make certain things happen. If I crack the whip on myself now, it’s only because I feel I have failed so much. But I probably make things harder in my mind than they really are. As you say, there are so many factors in how things turn out for anyone.

  3. LK says:

    This post is a good reminder for me to calm down. I have a one track vision that if I don’t get into graduate school NOW I will not have X Y Z. My path has become to narrow. I need to let it widen a bit. I also need to not let all the situations in my life at the moment, which I have no control over, control my mental state.

    • Sarah says:

      I hope you get into grad school and I’m sure you have as good a chance as anyone, but as you say, there are bound to be other great paths your life could go too, if need be. You will be fine 🙂

      • LK says:

        I appreciate the support 🙂 But it is important to remember that if this doesn’t work I may be able to find something else that will. As with all things in life, no one thing will make or break you.

  4. sanil says:

    These are great points I need to keep in mind, too. I’ve been kind of stuck for awhile, because I couldn’t get past the first steps in the path I’d planned to take. I’ve been doing some magical work (I know that probably sounds ridiculous to most, but whatever) to open my mind and move past the barriers I’ve set up, and this morning a new opportunity presented itself that I never would have considered. It’s hard letting an old plan die, but sometimes it’s necessary for that to happen so you can be more open to the paths that are wide open and right in front of you.

    • Sarah says:

      Great point – part of being adaptable and resilient is the ability to let go of things that aren’t working. I’m sure you will be glad you did.

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