Achieving Greatness Without Falling Apart

basketball hoop in basketball court


Caitlin Clark is a star, transforming and elevating the game of women’s basketball in a way that we’ve yet to see. At the heart of her story is the pursuit of greatness, striving for the outer bounds of her potential. How do we channel the passion, drive, and borderline obsession that the greats often possess, without letting it consume us? That’s the topic of this week’s FAREWELL podcast discussion (​Apple​/​Spotify​), and it’s at the core of what we wrestle with everyday here at The Growth Equation.

From Tiger Woods to Tony Hawk to Serena Williams to Kobe Bryant, the best of the best have a fierce inner competitiveness. A fire that sometimes comes across as maniacal obsession, or drive bordering on anger. How it manifests itself may be different. Bryant set an incredibly high standard, with a work-ethic that rivaled few. Hawk has his endless practices, an ability to do the same thing over and over again, until he gets it right. Williams possessed the ability to flip the switch, to change a match in an instant by channeling her forcefulness into the racket.

There’s no doubt Clark posses the same thing. You can see it in her play: it’s an ability to change a game, a competitiveness that borders on all consuming. But the same drive that propels us forward can also get in the way. It can become too much, transforming from controlled motivation to something a bit more radical. Sometimes you can see it seep out in Clark’s games. The gestures, hand waving, frustration over a call or ill fated pass. Or as Wright Thompson ​documented in a recent piece​, Clark’s “teammates meanwhile discovered her talent came with impatience and temper. She blew up at practice. A lot of throwing her hands up in the air, stomping off the court.”

When it comes to performance psychology, we like our lessons simple. There’s good and bad motivation, competition from either joy or anger, productive passion or destructive passion. But reality can be a lot messier.

Elite performers are great at harnessing the forces that make them good, without letting it blow themselves up.

We’re used to thinking of competitiveness as either you got it or you don’t. But ​research​ by Gabor Orosz paints a different picture. It depends where that competitiveness comes from. Hyper-competitiveness is when get caught up trying to maintain our sense of self through winning. We seek validation through the external. On the other hand, self-developmental competitiveness occurs when the internal matters more than the external. It’s about growing through competing, discovering who we are, what we’re capable of, and how to improve. It’s the popular adage of being addicted to the process.

The greats live on both sides of the spectrum, to different degrees. They aren’t zen monks who can let go of the external, the drive to show others what they can do, to validate their game. Just look at Michael Jordan, who used perceived slights form others to fuel his drive. But, and this is a big but, if they swing too far towards the hyper-competitive without balancing themselves out, disaster often awaits.

When we let the hyper-competitive take over, it’s never fulfilling. We keep chasing the thing, never quite able to satisfy our sense of self, because the rewards and accolades never fill us up. In extreme cases, it pushes athletes to cheating, because obtaining their goal is more important than anything else. Or perhaps it pushes them towards either being miserable or burned out. It’s like an addiction.

Psychologists Ellen Winner ​pointed this out decades ago​ when she studied prodigies across domains. She found that they were almost always borderline obsessive. They had what she called a “rage to master.” But what really mattered is what that drive was built upon. Winner found that it had to come deep from within, and that if it was too much focused on the external, it would steal away the internal: the joy and path of mastery that propelled them to greatness. As Winner wrote, when we push too hard “the intrinsic motivation and rage to master these children start out with becomes a craving for the extrinsic rewards of fame.”

Kobe Bryant was known for his killer instinct when he adopted his Black Mamba persona. He was the epitome of the clutch athlete. The person who could flip the switch, and direct all of his energy and attention towards taking over the game. Yet, when asked whether he was the type of player that “hated to lose” or “loved to win,” Bryant gave a ​unique answer​: “Neither…I play to figure things out, to learn something.”

Bryant went on to explain how both a too-narrow focus on winning and a too-narrow fear of losing would pull him away from focusing on the task at hand. In another interview, Bryant explained what all the greats had in common, “It’s love… And it’s a pure love. It’s not the fame. It’s not the money…. it’s not even the championships.”

What Bryant is getting at is the exactly what Orosz’s and Winner’s research points to. It’s making sure that the inner balances the outer. In the competitive crucible, we have to acknowledge that winning matters. And that we can’t escape our society’s prioritization of and pull towards outcomes. But, we can keep it from becoming self-defining and self-defeating.

That’s the central tension of performance. It’s balancing internal and external, it’s caring deeply but being able to let go just enough so you don’t tense up. It’s harnessing the emotional energy so that it doesn’t destroy you.

Fortunately, it appears it’s a lesson Clark is learning.

“She’d trapped herself in a perpetual state of chasing, where achievements brought no peace. Her coaches and mentors helped her see the lie in those dreams. The numbers, great as they were, fun as they have been to chase, weren’t speaking to her soul, weren’t why she played,” writes Thompson in his profile.

“That’s not going to make me feel full at the end of the day,” she said during another session. “In 20 years, banners and rings just collect dust. It’s more the memories.”

Caitlin settled on a mantra: “Find peace in the quest.”

For a wide-ranging discussion on Clark and the pursuit of greatness, be sure to listen to this week’s episode of the FAREWELL podcast, which was just published (Apple/Spotify). We go deeper on all the above and more. It’s a fascinating topic and I think you’ll find the discussion entertaining and informative.


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