Why is success so insatiable?

Why is success so insatiable?

Have you ever said to yourself, “Once I achieve [X], I’ll be ok with myself?” High performers constantly set these high expectations for themselves targeting promotions, bonuses, and big-ticket purchases. Then “X” happens and after the buzz wears off, you find yourself moving the goal line one step further.

Is this just the jet fuel of high achievement? This infinite striving is the reason they can rack up a spectacular collection of achievements. But does this come at a cost? A frenetic mind, forgoing presence with love ones, or the most pernicious – never being at peace with yourself.

Even creatives suffer from this affliction. I recently interviewed Giorgia Lupi, an information designer, artist, and author. A small side project called Dear Data took a spectacular trajectory and was acquired into the permanent collection of the MoMA. Yes, the motherfucking Museum of Modern Art! But alas, Giorgia found herself one night after her TED talk commiserating with her husband:

When you have that internal itch, you always feel that it’s never enough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so lucky, grateful and privileged to have had such opportunities.  I do remember one moment last year, I was called to do a TED talk. It was the most work I’ve ever done, it was something that I wanted more than getting into MOMA. And after I gave my talk, I went out for dinner with my husband and I was like “And now…” and he said No! Not tonight! Stop it! At least not tonight! It’s crazy, because you feel like “once I have that thing” it will be it, i will be finally ok with myself.

This reminded me of the internal battles that the former tennis superstar Andre Agassi. The tl;dr as told in was that he was conflicted about tennis, largely because it was his dad who seemed to want it more than him. Agassi was notoriously unhappy, yet felt that tennis accomplishments would prove to be his salvation. First is was winning a major Slam:

“Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last long as the bad. Not even close.”

The goal line moved to achieving the number 1 ranking and lastly the 1996 gold medal. Yet he never felt like it was enough:

“I find it surreal, then perfectly normal. I’m struck by how fast the surreal becomes the norm. I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They’re confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It’s something we always hear – like that old adage that money can’t buy happiness-but we never believe it until we see it ourselves. Seeing it in 1992 brings me a new measure of confidence.”

How can one calm this affliction of “never being enough?” Here’s organizational psychologist Adam Grant on not being so quick to dismiss wins:

I’ve started to do this for occasional accomplishments. I remember publishing Give and Take. It was a really amazing feeling. The idea of becoming an author was such a meaningful life transition. Then Originals came out and I was like “Yeah, I wrote another book.” I had totally adapted to being an author and it hardly registered as something to mark and celebrate. What I started doing to prevent that from happening was [inspired by Sheryl Sandberg who said]  “Look, moments of joy are really important and part of what makes life worth living and what we have to look forward to.” Being human is being able to enjoy life.  When these milestone moments now occur, what I do now is I rewind five years and ask myself, “If five years ago self knew that this was going to happen, how excited would I be?” But it gets me back in touch with the emotion and that transcends adversity.

And I return to the Robert Hastings poem The Station, a reminder that life is about savoring the journey and not obsessing about the destination.

“When we reach the station that will be it!” we cry. Translated it means, “When I’m 18, that will be it! When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz, that will be it! When I put the last kid through college, that will be it! When I have paid off the mortgage, that will be it! When I win a promotion, that will be it! When I reach the age of retirement, that will be it! I shall live happily ever after!”   Unfortunately, once we get it, then it disappears. The station somehow hides itself at the end of an endless track.

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