Saturday, May 31, 2008

How can a person strive for success and excellence while simultaneously trying to be content?




In this week's Ask The Harvard MBA post, I tackle the serious question of whether contentment is incompatible with striving for success.

"I have friends who are never content and are always paranoid, and whose self-inflicted misery makes them extremely successful and productive workaholics.

I was chatting with one of them yesterday; I asked him what he had planned for the weekend, and he replied that he was probably going to be working. “I’m doing a consulting job for a friend, and I’m not satisfied with my report, so I’m going to work hard this weekend to bring it up to my standards.”

This is the sort of fellow many have in mind when they wonder if contentment will blunt their edge. According to this mindset, motivation is like hunger. The drive to strive for success and excellence results from the gulf between desires and reality.

The logical corollary to this is exactly what you imply with your question–if I’m happy with what I have, and there is no gulf, will I still be motivated to succeed and excel?

As I mentioned before, there are people for whom this is true. I spent many long hours trying to convince my friend that being happy wouldn’t destroy his productivity, but I’ve since given up. Being a pessimist is part of his fundamental character, and if he didn’t feel his constant misery and worry, he’d become disoriented and, ironically enough, unhappy (albeit in a different way).
But for most of us, motivation is intrinisic, rather than extrinsic. We don’t strive for success and excellence because we’re dissatisfied with what we have; we strive because it is human nature to do so."

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