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Can You Be Great Without Being Obsessed?

In my performance coaching, one of the questions I get asked a lot is, “Can I reach my full potential without being obsessive?” It doesn’t matter if it’s an athlete or executive, driven individuals often believe that the only way to reach success is to go all-in, work like a maniac, and grind as if their life depended on it. If they back off, take a break, or shift their priorities just a tad, guilt, worry, and doubt soon follow.

The driven romanticize the grind. In sport, we mythologize the athlete who is all consumed by the quest to reach the top. Look no further than our celebrated sports fiction. There’s Rocky and its all-encompassing workout montages. Or Quinton Cassidy moving off to a cabin in the woods to train for Olympic glory in Once a Runner. In the business world, we hold up stories of CEOs working long hours with a maniacal focus. The Steve Jobs or the Elon Musks of the world dominate our collective narratives for what it means to be driven and successful.

We’ve tried to introduce a counter narrative, one that doesn’t diminish the value of hard work but says: we don’t have to be crazy all the time and neglect everything else in our lives to reach the top. And often, the response is, “Sure, but…,” followed by an explanation of why if you aren’t obsessed, you just won’t make it.

It is why I was struck by the performance of 800-meter runner Chanelle Price, who was running in her third Olympic Trials. Price was a high school phenom, making the Olympic Trials as a teenager. She went on to achieve success at the University of Tennessee but often struggled to live up to the enormous expectations she had thrust upon her as the second fastest high schooler in history at her distance. After college, she nearly reached the height of the sport, winning the world indoor championships in 2014. A series of injuries and bad luck, including a pulmonary embolism that led to blood clots in her lungs, prevented her from progressing and achieving her Olympic dreams.

In the years since, Price’s mindset has shifted. Before the finals of this year’s Trials, she told reporters, “I have a much healthier relationship with the sport than I did then…I think there’s a fine line between wanting something, and being obsessed with something. And I was definitely over that line and it just wasn’t healthy. I’m just enjoying the journey and I don’t let all the noise get to me. It’s a really nice place to be mentally. I’m really excited to see what I can do with that weight lifted off my shoulders.”

With the weight off her shoulders, she certainly performed. Her journey didn’t quite result in Olympic glory, as she fell just shy in fifth place, less than four-tenths of a second away from clinching an Olympic berth. But 13 years after appearing in her first trials as a phenom, and with a whole new mental framework, she certainly proved she belonged. She ran the fastest time of her life in the final, breaking her six-year-old personal best to run 1:58.73; a time that puts her in the top 20 in the world this year. Might she have run faster if she was more obsessed? We’ll never know. But there’s an equally good, if not greater, chance her mental and physical health would have suffered from obsession and she would have performed—and felt—worse.

I think Chanelle has helped to answer the question posed by many pushers. No one is discounting the amount of hard work needed to reach success. But as she put it, there’s a fine line. We don’t need to go over it to reach our best performance.

— Steve

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