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The Dangers of Going All-In

By all accounts, it seemed like a success story.

At 17 years old, he’d bet on himself. He and his brother packed their bags and moved from the comparatively affluent New Zealand to Kenya, home of the top runners in the world. What better way to pursue your dreams than immerse yourself with the best? It didn’t matter that they were teenagers who knew absolutely no one in this foreign land. Everyone thought he was crazy and reckless. And if friends or family had seen the ‘concrete cell’ living conditions they occupied initially, they might have been justified. But, years later, it seemed to have worked. Zane Robertson became a two-time Olympian, a medalist at the Commonwealth games, and a New Zealand record holder.

Years ago, Robertson held up going all-in as a badge of honor, telling a reporter, “I think about the people, and the teachers, who used to tell me, What if you don’t make it?’ Proving the haters wrong is motivation too.

But alas, this isn’t a fairy tale ending.

Last week, Zane Robertson got busted for doping. He tested positive for using the banned substance EPO. While it’s impossible to know what is fact and fiction after an athlete gets popped, his interviews were filled with justifications and rationalizations of the same variety we hear over and over: everyone is doing it, frustration in others getting ahead, financial stress, and so on. While we may never know the actual reason for Robertson’s transgressions, or even when they started, I can’t help but think this story has shifted from one about the value of going all-in to a cautionary tale of the very opposite: why not to.

It turns out that when we go all-in, we’re more likely to cheat.

In my and Brad’s overlooked book, , we researched and explored this phenomenon. Going all-in and becoming obsessive is what hustle culture tells you to do if you want to succeed. But more often than not, it makes you fragile. Those who score higher on obsessive passion are more likely to commit fraud in the workplace and cheat on the athletic fields. The deeper intertwined your performance is to your sense of self, the more fragile you are. You become desperate to lead your company to some great measure because it’s a reflection of who you are.

It’s not just ethics where obsession makes a negative difference. It’s in performance too. Consider an investigation published in the Academy of Management Journal, “Should I Quit My Day Job? A Hybrid Path to Entrepreneurship.” After interviewing thousands of entrepreneurs, they found that those who kept their day job while pursuing a personal venture on the side—or what the researchers called “hybrid entrepreneurship”—were 33 percent more likely to succeed than those who quit their jobs altogether. As the Harvard Business Review put it, “Going all-in on your start-up might not be the best idea.”

We tend to hype those who go all-in. But maybe, just maybe, we should celebrate those who do it gradually. Who have a life and interests outside of their sport or business or craft. Who can do things the right way over the long haul; because when they inevitably struggle, desperation doesn’t take hold.

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