You’ve got to care deeply to do well in just about anything. It’s what sport coaches, military leaders, and bosses spend so much time trying to instill: some combination of buy-in, passion, and motivation. Caring deeply about your craft is a ticket to improving.
Except when it’s not.
We often extol the virtues of caring, but we seldom discuss the risks that come with taking it too far, or in the wrong direction. I know this firsthand.
I’m a much more talented runner than writer. During my competitive days, that talent differential was reflected in my approach. I cared a lot about running, to the point of borderline obsession. I was detail orientated, making sure I got in every run, lift, or recovery session. I did the little things. I tried to optimize everything. I cared a lot, as I thought that was the path to high performance.
In writing, I care deeply as well. But not quite as much, and in a different way. I don’t mind a typo here or there on a newsletter. I accept that I’ll have some imperfect sentences in a book. I remind myself that my foremost goal is to spread ideas. I accept that I’m not going to write prose that rivals Twain or Tolstoy.
This difference could perhaps be best illustrated by how I’d handle a critique or failure in each endeavor. If I under performed in a race, it would sometimes feel like the end of the world. It attacked my sense of self; it cut deep, and the impact would linger. But if someone writes a critical review or tells me they don’t like my book, sure I’m disappointed, but it’s easy to brush it off. It doesn’t feel personal.
I’ve arguably obtained more ‘success’ as a writer than I ever did as a runner. If caring deeply was the key to performance, how could this be the case?
During a recent press conference, college basketball coach Rick Pitino said, “When we lose, I f***ing hate the world….I want to kill myself and die of frost bite.” Pitino has had a lot of success in his career, along with some controversy. But this hyperbolic statement on losing isn’t uncommon in sports. Urban Meyer uttered similar words about losing, and pundits often talk about how powerful of a motivator hating losing is.
There are two kinds of striving: secure and insecure. The insecure variety comes from fear: fear of letting others down, of being exposed, of not living up to your (or others) expectations. Secure striving comes from wanting to win, to do your best, but realizing that it’s not the end of the world if you fall short. There’s a bit of space between you and the pursuit, and the motivation is primarily intrinsic. The incessant hatred of losing that Pitino expressed might sound good on the surface, but it often stems from insecurity.
In a study on striving, researchers found that insecure striving was associated with validation-seeking, unfavorable social comparison, submissiveness, and higher depression and anxiety. In fact, the researchers suggest that this shift towards insecure striving may be one of the reasons for the rise of depression in young adults
Too often we’re told we need to care more to perform. But if we leave it at that, we miss out. We need to care, but at the right point where we don’t get overly attached to the thing and lose perspective. Above all, we need the right intrinsic drivers and foundations behind that care. That’s secure striving. In my own running, caring got in the way. While I may have started out striving securely, over time that moved towards the insecure variety. The drive to compete transformed from want to, to have to. It’s the same in those who hate losing to an inordinate degree. You can dislike failure and be frustrated by it, but if it sends you spiraling out of control, it’s likely that you are losing control. You are striving on an insecure basis.
I’ve always liked writing. But it’s never been such a central part of my identity in the way running was. I’ve been able to stay in the joyful exploration stage. In other words, by and large I’ve been able to strive securely.
So maybe the old adage that we need to fall madly in love with a pursuit, become obsessed with it, care so deeply that it hurts, is the wrong ideal. A better piece of advice might be to care deeply, but not too much. That balance lightens the burden just enough so that you are free to perform to your potential. Fear and insecurity are designed to save our lives in the short term, to escape from the lion charging at us. But they aren’t such great motivators when we have eighty-two basketball games a year to coach for decades.