The Right Way to Reach the Top

We have a whole system built on striving and it causes a lot of suffering—anxiety, competition, misplaced priorities. Brad Stulberg looks at ways we can change our stressful striving into right effort.

Brad Stulberg
9 September 2020
Photo by Joshua Earle.

Ever since I can remember, all the way back to Little League, I’ve been called a “pusher.” I’ve been told I have fierce and intense drive, a quality that is celebrated in our society. Striving can indeed be a desirable quality, one that nourishes the heart and mind. But it can also be a negative quality, one that makes us feel rushed and scattered and takes us out of the present moment.

As people committed to spiritual practice, how do we reconcile striving with presence, doing with being, growth with contentedness? This is a common conundrum, one that I and so many of my coaching clients struggle with.

What separates skillful striving from unskillful striving? How does striving fit into a Buddhist practice, if at all? I’ve been reflecting on these questions a lot recently, specifically on the conditions that give rise to the wholesome variety of striving versus those that give rise to the unwholesome kind.

Skillful striving has an ethical motivation and situates you fully in the present moment. In the 1950s, the humanist philosopher and psychotherapist Erich Fromm called this productive activity. In the past few decades, behavioral scientists have also called it flow, or sometimes harmonious passion.

The irony is that those who are focused least on conventional success and most on being present are the most likely to achieve conventional success anyway.

These are states of total absorption in an activity, when you feel like you are one with your activity, completely in the zone. In this state, you grow closer to your internal self, which is arguably the ultimate and most meaningful goal. Over two thousand years ago, the Buddha called this right effort.

Right effort, which is part of the noble eightfold path, teaches that it is okay—crucial, even—to strive for wholesome states. According to the Pali canon, one of the oldest Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha said, “And what, monks, is right effort? It is the desire to abandon evil unwholesome states…and to make an effort to arouse energy, apply one’s mind, and strive for wholesome states…for their increase, expansion, and fulfillment.”

If wholesome states are characterized by presence and flow, what, then, would “wrong” effort be, the type of striving that gives rise to unwholesome states? It is striving aimed at achieving external fame, status, or wealth. These external endpoints, more common than ever in today’s society, result in a strong, narrow craving and action that can be compulsive. People who are consumed by this kind of craving are constantly looking ahead, always restless, have no time for others, are less considerate, and are never really where they are—if not physically than at least mentally.

Modern behavioral science calls this the arrival fallacy or obsessive passion. In these states, people become reliant on external achievement in order not to experience negative emotions. But they can never really get enough of what they are chasing after. Of course, the Buddha was onto this too. He called it dukkha—the suffering of craving that can never be fulfilled.

Research shows that productive activity, flow, and harmonious passion (i.e., right effort) are associated with sustainable peak performance, well-being, and overall life satisfaction. Waiting to “arrive” and obsessive passion (i.e., wrong effort) are associated with anxiety, depression, burnout, unethical behavior, and dukkha.

The great irony is that those who are focused least on conventional success and most on being present in the process of their lives are the most likely to achieve conventional success anyway. Striving can be a very wholesome and positive quality if it is less about achieving an external goal and more about being right here right now; less about becoming a champion or physician or lawyer or millionaire and more about becoming a truer and better person, having a richer experience in the present moment, and offering your talents to the universe.

There is nothing wrong with energy and drive. It is only problematic if you point it in unskillful directions or become addicted to its results. For me, this is the difference between writing to write and writing to get on a bestseller list, between putting considerate and helpful ideas out into the universe and spending hours checking retweets and likes. The former always make me feel nourished. The latter leave me feeling empty.

I have to be very intentional about this—constantly paying attention to if (and what) I’m craving, how I direct my attention and energy, and how I feel as a result. Wholesome striving is an ongoing practice, a seed that must be watered over and over again. When I find myself off the path (I must admit, not infrequently) I view it as an opportunity to practice: I note what has happened and gently nudge myself back in the direction I want to be heading.

Another way to understand striving is this: Setting a goal to reach the peak of a mountain, be it a literal or metaphorical one, can be great. And yet, if the whole way up you are craving the peak—or worse yet, thinking about what you’ll post on social media when you get there—you’ll ultimately end up suffering.

If, on the other hand, you are present for the journey, perhaps at times even forgetting about the peak altogether, you’ll experience a more lasting joy. It’s the same goal and the same destination, but a very different kind of energy, a better kind of striving, along the path.

Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg is the author of The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. In his coaching practice, he works with executives, entrepreneurs, and athletes on their mental skills and overall well-being.