A few years ago, I sat with a group of entrepreneurs in the living room of a cute little condo in Whitefish, Montana. My role was facilitating conversations about their obstacles and opportunities as business owners. It was a group of super successful folks, some on their way to a million dollars or more in annual revenue, others embarking on significant change, and still others who were undertaking radical new projects.
This is not a group of people who dole out derivative advice or positive thinking. They’re each thoughtful, creative, and a bit subversive in their own way. Over our time together, each business owner took turns sharing a particular challenge or idea with the group and allowed others to ask questions, share experiences, or offer ideas.
As the retreat drew to a close, we had only a couple of people left who hadn’t spoken. I wasn’t worried about it because they are kind of folks who really value being immersed in others’ challenges. But finally, one of those remaining business owners—Rita Barry—spoke up. And she said, “The question I’ve been trying to answer for myself is: what does growth without striving look like?”
Recently, I asked her about that moment. She told me the question “hadn’t been fully formed.” It was one of those times when you don’t realize you’re saying exactly what you need to say until it comes out of your mouth. “You’re like, oh, awesome. Thank you. That was really helpful.”
Rita is the founder of a social advertising agency for female-led businesses. That business has been growing at an incredible pace in the time since she moved away from web design and moved into measurement marketing. She told the group that, in the last couple of years, she’d grown her business well beyond any material needs—or even most desires—her family had. Her business didn’t need to grow. But she liked growth. She was interested in learning and developing new skills, new perspectives on life and business.
She just didn’t want to strive.
Like me, overachieving has been Rita’s default mode.
She expected to succeed—but her expectations of success were constantly changing. She told me, “Success was kind like a mirage—where you see it in the distance, you move toward it, you do everything you think you’re supposed to do, and you get there. And then it just disappears and moves farther away.” I experienced this many times myself. The reason is that success seems like it’s going to be some kind of revelation; when I succeed, then I will be… But success just doesn’t hold that kind of power. It doesn’t hold that kind of meaning—even if we expect it to.
Rita said she felt like she was chasing something imaginary and that all that striving was the source of her stress and friction.
So what does growth without striving look like? Why are we so compelled to strive, succeed, and achieve? It’s no exaggeration to say that these questions have become foundational to my work in the time since Rita first voiced them. I’ve done the research. I’ve had the conversations. And I have a working theory that I’m currently formulating into what I hope will be a game-changing book.
But to kick off this year, I wanted to go back to the source and get the full story from Rita.
How has her thinking and action has evolved since she first articulated that question? For my own work this year, the big question I’m asking is: how do we navigate the 21st-century economy with our humanity intact? As I seek to answer that question, Rita’s story and her personal growth is an essential text to study.
As I mentioned, I’ve talked to many people about this drive to succeed. And for many of us, it’s rooted, unsurprisingly, in childhood experiences. What we were told was necessary to make it in this world. Rita and I have very similar formative experiences of school. In addition to the pressure we put on ourselves to get those straight-A’s, we also felt the pressure to excel so that we’d have the best shot at low-cost higher education since our families didn’t have money to put us through college. We share a similar mindset about what’s possible to achieve in school—an attitude we’ve carried with us into our careers and businesses.
Rita told me, “I always felt like if the teachers and the books and everything that had been brought to me in a course or class, if I had a hundred percent of the information presented to me, there was no reason I couldn’t get a hundred percent on the test.” Getting every answer just made sense to her. She never questioned her ability to deliver high marks. And she has the laminated report cards to prove it.
And throughout our education, people told Rita and me that we were remarkable. Gifted. Smart. It was the kind of external validation that we could live on for months—because that validation was evidence that we were valued in the meritocratic, capitalist society we live in. That validation was the only way we had at the time to measure our worthiness as human beings.
The problem, though, is that external validation is never enough to measure ourselves by the expectations of the neoliberal meritocracy we’re taught to believe we exist in. It can’t actually create the self-worth, sense of identity, or comfort we hope it will. It also can’t fend off the fear of imminent failure or substitute for stability in an economy defined by precarity. But man, we sure try.
And that’s what I call The Validation Spiral.
Essentially the spiral begins with a particular commitment or responsibility. It feels good to take it on, make it your project, and others validate you for saying yes or leveling up. And that feels even better. But that feeling doesn’t last long.
So when another commitment or responsibility comes up, you take that one on too. So you can reclaim that validation. You get where I’m going with this, right? That same process happens repeatedly until we’re hopelessly over-committed and our resources are stretched thin or wholly depleted.
And at that point, you’re actually undercommitted to all the things you said yes to for validation. You feel like a failure, like you just don’t have what it takes. At this point, you either half-ass your way to the finish line, burnt out and miserable, or you break down and quit everything. Now, I know that is an extreme example of the consequences of the validation spiral, but I’m going to bet that you can remember a time when they felt like your only option.
And when continuing to commit more and more feels like the only way to get closer to the mirage of success, it’s painful. It might never occur to you that all of that self-destruction and self-negation isn’t the only way to grow or learn. Rita told me that she was so deep in this mindset, so down The Validation Spiral, that she would catastrophize the prospect of failure. She said, “Some people can be like, I’m working on a goal and then if I don’t get it, it’s fine. I’m like, well, no, but then I’m a failure.”
The Validation Spiral doesn’t just have emotional and psychological consequences. Chasing our self-worth through external validation and markers of success has real physical consequences over the long run. Rita told me that she’d lost big chunks of hair during school thanks to the stress of overachieving. It also took a toll on her relationships. If she had a choice between hanging out with friends and getting a 90% on a test or staying home and getting 100%, she’d stay home. To her, that was what mattered for her future success “as a human being.”
Why do we strive in such self-destructive ways?
Or, if we don’t, why do we feel like we should be? I have a few answers to this question, but the one that rings most true to Rita’s story and mine, for that matter, is the enormous cultural shift that our society has gone through since the late seventies and early eighties. In the last 40 years, our society restructured around the free market as the ultimate test of value and proof of worthiness.
Sociologist Max Weber first described this unique quality of American culture in his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. He demonstrated that the Calvinist influence and its secularization, best described by Ben Franklin’s famous “time is money,” marked a shift toward seeing hard work and the resulting wealth accumulation as the ultimate sign of virtue. Literally, hard work was a sign that God found you worthy of salvation. This attitude found a home amongst economists who opposed centralized economic policy (i.e., socialism and its ilk) and governments’ regulation of the market. They adopted the term “neoliberalism” to describe their position. This position was then turned into social and economic policy in the US by Ronald Reagan and in the UK by Margaret Thatcher—along with a powerful social narrative that’s been teaching us to fear failure as a mark of weakness or inability.
Our response to this as students, workers, and entrepreneurs has been to convert ourselves into commodities and market our labor for others to consume. Failure to do so effectively is cast as a personal failing. In his book, What About Me?, Paul Verhaeghe writes, “Human dimensions have all been made grist to a single mill, the neoliberal market economy. This has also resolved the conundrum of what constitutes the ideal individual. The answer is the most productive man or woman.” What Rita describes as her personal narrative isn’t some idiosyncrasy. It’s the natural result of the social, political, and economic systems we are a part of in the Global North.
Following this system, Rita expected that she’d take the path of medicine or engineering to career success. She excelled at math and science—and she knew that’s the course her family expected her to follow. Unfortunately, she realized that she just couldn’t cut into people. It made her sick. Luckily, she worked in a group home for a summer job, and she discovered that she really enjoyed taking care of people, helping others, all of those social services activities. So she decided to pursue a career in social work. “That one was a huge disappointment to a lot of people around me,” she told me. She marks that decision as the first time she chose to buck expectations and go with what felt right.
Eventually, her husband’s career change led to moving to a small town in a different province. There was no childcare for her two-year-old, so she became a stay-at-home mom. That’s when she started her business: “I was bored out of my mind because, even though I was very achievement-driven, I also love to learn, be busy, and feel like I’m challenging myself. All of those things were missing in stay-at-home mumming.”
Building a business is the perfect time to deconstruct our relationships with goals, achievement, and success.
Most of us don’t, of course—it took me more than 7 years to venture into that territory. But it is the perfect laboratory for experimenting with breaking out of The Validation Spiral. Rita told me that she’s still focused on growth but that the motivation has changed. She’s no longer interested in making more money because it’s a way to prove herself. Instead, Rita asks herself whether she wants to work toward a goal. Whether she believes a project will be fun. Whether there’s something new to learn.
While we certainly can act against the dominant forces that encourage us to strive to prove our worth, we can’t do that without first examining them. We need a closer look at, as Rita put it, the subconscious story that drives us. Over the last year, I’ve been hugely influenced by the work of Anne Helen Petersen as I examine my own subconscious beliefs about what makes me worthy in this market economy. Petersen’s book, Can’t Even, describes the systems that have led to our collective condition of burnout. She’s quick to explain how powerful these forces are by how readily they’ve become “common sense.”
In a Q&A in 2020, Petersen echoed Rita’s attitude toward school earlier. She said, “I thought that if I did everything. Like, if I knew every obstacle on the path and knew the strategies for overcoming it, then I would reach stability, happiness, whatever those things are that we dream of as aspiring adults.”
In her book, Petersen writes, “No amount of hustle or sleeplessness can permanently bend a broken system to your benefit.” That’s been a message that I’ve needed to hear over and over again. And it’s this type of message that’s allowed Rita to deconstruct her own relationship with the idea of success and proving her worth. Since examining her relationship with success, Rita has shed the anxiety and stress that comes from constantly worrying about worthiness or the risk of failure. But that doesn’t mean she’s any less successful than she was before. In fact, Rita’s business has completely blown up in the last five years—without losing clumps of hair.
Rita’s moved on from her fear of failure—the fear of making the ask, letting go of a client, saying “no.” And what she’s been able to create in its absence is incredible. So here’s a question for you and a question for me, too: What could you create if you eliminated or at least mitigated the fear of failure?
Quickly acknowledging that letting go of the fear of failure is still a work-in-progress, Rita explained that she still works hard and wants to achieve—but it’s no longer in service of that fear. Achievement doesn’t prove her worthiness. After generating well over 7-figures in revenue last year, she says, “I don’t feel like it means that I’m a better person because I did that. I’m a better person because of who I had to become to do that.”
When I’m working with people on vision creation, commitment setting, or planning, I often ask, who do you need to become? I’m not asking them to change who they are but to grow into someone who has the skills, perspective, and positioning to create what they want to create. Whether they actually achieve a particular goal is immaterial because that growth has such intrinsic value. That’s what growth without striving looks and feels like.
This is an essay version of Episode 368 of What Works. Click here to listen on your favorite player.