Friday, October 16, 2009

"Desire Spiral" - Thoughts On Ambition, Success, and Burnout

Lately I have not really felt myself. Most times throughout the day I feel normal, but in the past month or two I have been plagued by intermittent down spells. Those who know me personally know that I am generally positive and upbeat so these little down moods got me a little worried. I have been doing my best to do some self reflection and soul searching to see what the source is and after a few weeks I think I am narrowing in on some causes. I am self diagnosing my ailment as “desire spiral.”

At about age 11 I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to the great game of hockey. I wanted to earn a division I scholarship and play college hockey. I have spoken about how I probably should have set my sights higher on BadskiBlog before, but regardless I have no regrets. From that age forward I did whatever it took to achieve my dream. I sacrificed a lot and put in an extraordinary amount of hours driving towards that goal. The experience of setting a long term goal and achieving it taught me a lot. However, I was obviously unprepared to parallel those lessons over to my life after hockey.

I have remained driven in my post competitive hockey life but my focus has changed, broadened and become less concrete in terms of a defined end state. I now focus my efforts on things like career progression, self education, different ventures, my marriage, etc. All of these things (and more) are important to me, however unlike my hockey career there isn’t a destination in mind. I have general ideas of how I want all of these things to culminate into the life I want to live, yet I feel as though having an end state in each is self limiting. I don’t want to put the blinders on to opportunities that arise. I have experienced enough in my life to know that life doesn’t care about your plans. Life is like a tree; as you grow you branch out in the general direction you intended but often split off into a pseudo representation of your original idea. Needless to say, not having a relatively linear goal track like my athletic career has been hard for me. Which is what I believe is leading me to suffer from “desire spiral”

Desire spiral is the second and third order consequences that arise from being driven to achieve. I know I want to be successful. I know I need to work hard to achieve my goals and to progress as a person. But this desire often leads me to feel frustrated, down, restless, and often times less confident in my abilities than when I was just trucking along as an athlete seeing where the world would take me. Desire spiral is similar to the library syndrome, in that you don’t know how much you don’t know until you begin to learn. Desire spiral is you don’t know how much you can improve until you begin the journey of self improvement.

So how can you combat desire spiral? When I came across this article on Zen Habits that offers some great advice for combating burnout, which is very applicable and somewhat parallel to the symptoms of desire spiral. Below are a few highlights that I stole from the piece. These are only tiny excerpts and the full post has more in depth analysis of each recommendation. If you are interested the full post can be found here.

1. Achieve in increments. When you only focus on a big goal someday, it’s easy to get burned out by the daily grind. It’s like driving toward a mountain in the distance. You can drive for hours, but the mountain doesn’t seem to get any closer. And spinning your wheels gets real tiring real fast.

4. Define success realistically. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having big dreams and big ambitions. But if you’re constantly frustrated by a lack of progress, it might be time to take a step back and examine your goals. Are they achievable? Are you holding yourself to a reasonable timeline?

6. Take it slow(er). The world tells us to rush things: “Get there faster. Make money quicker. Retire sooner.” And while these things aren’t necessarily bad, they can easily get us in over our heads. If you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed, it’s time to slow down.

10. Create outlets. If you’re a person of diverse interests (and really, who isn’t?), it’s likely that you have several very different goals and ideas bouncing around in your head at any given time. These ideas need outlets. If you hold them inside, they’ll eventually start interfering with your focus and creating unnecessary frustration, leading to burnout.

In other words, I think it’s okay – healthy, even – to start a few side projects as outlets for creative energy. Just make sure that you keep your priorities straight and your side projects fun. If these side projects become sources of stress, cut them out immediately.

I would add a few more to the already great list of recommendations:

1. Exercise - Never doubt the connection between body and mind. Whenever I am suffering from a bout with desire spiral I can always combat it with a great workout. Not only does it provide some alone time to collect your thoughts but your physical exertion eases some of the stress that your mind may be feeling. Everything seems more achievable after a workout.

2. Break bread (and bottles) with those you care about - Remember you should already be living the life you want to live. "Content but never satisfied" is the phrase I often repeat to myself. Its a little mantra of sorts that I created to remind me that the time is now. You should love your life but always striving to make it better. So if you are obsessed with success in terms of future achievements you are wrong. You are trying to better the already good life you have built for yourself. Just don’t let the “never satisfied overpower the content." That mentality is one of the root causes of desire spiral. Every time I go out and have dinner and a few drinks with the people I care about or talk to my family back home I know that in the grand scheme of things I am alright. I realize that I have it pretty damn good so I should relax and enjoy the ride a bit.


Cameron Schaefer said...

I can definitely relate to how you're feeling right now - I find myself interested in so many different areas that I get overwhelmed. There's a strange suffocating feeling that comes not from lack of possibility, but from endless possibility. The Paradox of Choice I suppose.

Ben Casnocha wrote an interesting post that discussed the new idea of the "quarter life crisis."

There are some areas that I don't necessarily relate to, but I definitely found it to be an accurate picture of the angst I, and it sounds like you, feel as we transition through our twenties.

Matt Bader said...

Man, great recommendation on that post on Ben's blog. I can't believe I never read that one before. There is a lot of stuff in there that really applies to my own random desire spiral concept. Thanks dude.