Your Obsession With Being The Best Is Killing Happiness

Do you have an obsession with being the best? If so, your obsession is probably killing your happiness. Let's discuss!

Since I can remember, I've been made fun of and criticized for trying to be the best at whatever thing it was I was interested in at the time. I had an obsession with being the best.

Disappointing My History Teacher

My AP History teacher in high school was amazing and I would sit in the front of the class engrossed by all the stories he told about the Civil War and how he got to be an extra in Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington's 1989 movie, Glory.

At the end of the year, Mr. Stanton was kind enough to give me the AP History Award for most outstanding student. I was honored, but surprised because I wasn't a great student and this was my only academic award I ever received. I think he just appreciated someone always attentively listening instead of dozing off like some of my other classmates.

But I disappointed Mr. Stanton in the end because I didn't try harder. When I got the award, a couple classmates made me feel like a loser. They said I was a dork for liking history so much. As a result of such feedback, I decided not to study a lot for the AP History placement test, which could have given me college credit if I scored a 3 or better out of 5.

When Mr. Stanton enthusiastically asked how I did once he knew the scores were out, I didn't want to tell him because I only scored a 2. I was not the most outstanding student he had envisioned and I felt horrible for letting him down.

“Sam, don't worry about the exam,” replied Mr. Stanton. “It's hard to remember everything in history anyway. But if you remember one thing, remember to never let anybody keep you from going for what you want. Thanks for always attending my classes and playing a good game of Risk!”

After Mr. Stanton's talk, I began feeling angry that I let people negatively affect something I cared about. The battle was on between trying to be the best, not wanting to be a disappointment to others, and never letting anybody keep me from doing what I enjoyed again. Perhaps you've experienced a similar battle growing up and as an adult today.

The Pain Of Disappointment

The problem with trying so hard is that failure feels that much more painful. The obsession with being the best makes you care a great deal! Disappointing someone who believes in you is worse than disappointing yourself. Perhaps this is the reason why some folks never really give it everything they've got?

Since college I consistently tried to massacre my mind and body by studying and working as hard as anyone. In college, it was imperative to graduate at least magna cum laude to give myself the best chance at getting a good job because I knew I wasn't very smart. When I landed my first job, there was no question of getting in by 5:30am and leave after 7:30pm every day for the first two years because I knew nothing – and people who know nothing are easily disposable.

But after 13 short years, I was done. I no longer wanted to kill myself at the age of 34 so I left to make no money as a writer. I thought I could make it until age 40 in finance, but I was burned out. If I managed to continue working my finance job for six more years, I'd surely be richer as a result. But like anybody who has ever run a 400 meter or longer race, starting out too strongly can pose big problems towards the end.

A More Relaxing Life Now

Now I spend a couple hours a day writing and another hour or so connecting with folks online. On Mondays and Wednesdays I go into work for a financial tech company as a consultant. And on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I spend my time playing tennis, running errands, or traveling. Such a far cry from the 12-14 hour days working in Corporate America.

In the long run everything is rational, which is why I do believe America will slowly turn into Europe in the next 50 years with higher taxes, a slower pace of life, less innovation, cheaper education, universal healthcare, and a much happier population. The happiest countries in the world all hail from Europe (see chart) because they know all about work-life balance.

So perhaps trying hard, and obsessing over being the best is not a healthy endeavor. Here are some examples that illustrate why being average might be better.

Why Being Average May Be Better For Happiness

Instead of having an obsession for being the best, how about having an obsession for being average? You could be much happier if so! Let me provide some examples.

Obsession For Being The Best In Education

Imagine going to Harvard for $180,000 in tuition over four years and landing a regular $40,000 a year job that anybody from any college could have gotten. What a disappointment when it comes to money, especially if your parents are not rich and you didn't get very many grants.

If more people thought about the financial implications of college, there would be less of a student loan crisis. I feared high expectations so I decided to attend The College of William & Mary for $2,800 a year vs. $25,000 a year for a comparable private school back in the 90s.

If I ended up back at my old job at McDonald's, I would be disappointed, but at least I could cover all four years of tuition earning minimum wage. Unless you are rich or supremely gifted, it's an inevitability you will be starting your career in a financial hole.

Seriously folks, what if you go to Harvard and end up a nobody! What a disaster!

Obsession For Being The Best In Physical Attributes

Imagine growing up as a beautiful and fit kid. All your life people treat you special because people are shallow that way. Then one day you discover the joys of eating. You put on the freshman 15 in college and never lose it. After you get a job, you realize working out is a luxury you don't have.

You're now 32 years old and 30 pounds heavier than you once were. The 15 year high school reunion is coming up next year and you are stressed out of your mind! You're worried about your ex-classmates snickering behind your back for letting yourself go. If you were average looking with an average body in school, people wouldn't care that you gained 30 pounds as a male or a female. Weight gain is an inevitable part of life in America.

Obsession For Being The Best In Building Wealth

If you are wealthy in America, you are either idolized (e.g. Kardashians for some reason) or assailed (e.g. the top 1%). Politicians will arbitrarily determine an individual making over a certain amount is wealthy regardless of their educational background, occupation, or geographic location in order to enact class warfare for votes.

Even though you do make more than average, you feel excluded, which is an uncomfortable feeling anybody who has ever been discriminated against can understand. Unless you are an inventor, people will tend to look at you suspiciously regarding how you accumulated your wealth.

If you are of average wealth, there is no need to hide. You don't have to send your kids to private school, obscure your home address, worry about kidnappers, or fear persecution by the government. President Biden plans to raise your taxes, despite paying more than your fair share and struggling with your mental health.

The idea of Stealth Wealth makes no sense as you walk freely among the crowd.

Obsession For Being The Best In Sports

In 2012 my 4.5 level league tennis team won the San Francisco City Championship. Glory! We were the favorites to win again in 2013 but we didn't. We lost 2-3 in the finals after our #1 singles player blew a 4-1 lead in the third set. Although it was quite an accomplishment for any team to repeat back-to-back finals, we all felt extremely disappointed. If we were in the middle 4-6 teams out of 10, we'd be ecstatic to have just made the playoffs.

After the loss, many of us decided to give up tennis for months because we were so depressed. The 2014 regular season is almost over and we are expected to win the city championships again. I was bumped up to 5.0 several years later. It is a top 1% rating. The problem? I barely win anymore! It sucks!

Obsession For Being The Best At Work 

Only the bottom 10% workers really are at risk of getting let go in any given year if there is no major structural change e.g. closing down of a department or a merger. So long as you are in the middle you can happily go about doing your job and practicing the coveted work-life balance where you punch out by 5pm, never work weekends, and schedule doctors appointments in the middle of the day. You'll get your raises and promotions no faster or slower than otherwise expected.

If you are in the top 10% there is expectation from your managers to always keep producing outstanding work. You can't be outstanding forever, and eventually you will revert back to average work. But your average work is still better than the good work of your average peers.

Unfortunately, in your manager's eyes you are failing and you will likely get punished for being average. I remember being admonished for dropping from being #2 ranked to #3 ranked with a client, when just a year ago I was being praised for moving up from #5 to #3. Manage expectations and just be careful not to commit any of these career limiting moves.

Obsession For Being The Best In Writing

Imagine having a day job and concurrently working 30 hours a week on your blog for years to be able to publish three, 1,000+ word articles a week en gratis. Your articles get featured in major media publications and your readership grows into the hundreds of thousands a month. Because of your track record, readers now expect you to continue writing thoughtful posts three times a week full of insights.

But unless you are a creative genius or a machine, there's no way you can consistently publish great content. Think about how many great bands flame out after producing a hit album. They'd either take a year or two off, or produce something so disappointing they'd quit for good.

Writing is maddeningly difficult sometimes. You can't just try harder to write better. Different parts of the brain are at work. To then get criticized for your writing abilities is so defeating (please continue to comment or e-mail me regarding punctuation and grammar mistakes).

It's probably better to just hire a ghost writer or spend 30 minutes writing a post than 5 hours in order to manage expectations and hedge against disappointment (lack of readership, social sharing, comments). You don't want to feel like a loser in this perfect world.

I've been writing consistently on Financial Samurai 3X a week since 2009. I'm tired as hell post-pandemic. Further, given Financial Samurai has grown to over 1 million page views a month, it's hard to move the needle any more. It was much more fun when Financial Samurai first started. The growth was huge!

What Are The Alternatives?

1) Balance Your Education

Don't worry about doing well in high school in order to overpay for the privilege of going to a private school. Unless you get a full ride or scholarship equal to what you would pay at a public school, forget about it. And if you were smart enough to get a scholarship at a private school equal to what you'd pay for public school tuition, then you are probably smart enough to get a full ride to the public school of your choice.

Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt. That is scary considering how out of control our consumer culture is. The return on a college education has declined tremendously thanks to skyrocketing tuition and a commoditization of education.

You can take plenty of top notch courses for free online now or learn about anything on Kahn Academy. Making education accessible and free to all is the great equalizer to narrow the wealth gap. Being the one to pay up for an education today is backwards, unless your family is so rich you guys don't care.

Related: Public Or Private? Paying $1 Million For Private Seems Ridiculous

2) Moderate Your Exercise

Forget about working out two hours a day and buying supremely healthy and organic produce for your body. All you need is 15 minutes a day for a longer, healthier life according to the 90+ study highlighted on 60 Minutes. Your lifespan and health is largely determined by genetics.

You can help yourself by getting into the lower end of your weight band and the higher end of your life expectancy. But if you are going to die from pancreatic cancer like Steve Jobs did at age 56, no amount of vegan eating will save you. Instead, practice moderation instead and use your money and time saved investing in your future.

3) Realize You're Already Wealthy

Stop striving to be wealthier than you can be and recognize the wealth you already have. It's important to accept our wealth potential. Some are just born rich. Others are born smart, lucky, and good looking. We must recognize our attributes and be realistic with our upper wealth limits. As soon as you think you deserve an “A Lifestyle” as a “C Student” it's game over. Life isn't too difficult once you've reached a median income level.

4) Enjoy The Sport

99.9% of us will never become professional athletes. As a result, quit with being overly competitive and the poor sportsmanship. The ability to play sports is a blessing. There are many people out there who don't know how to throw a ball, can't swing a golf club, can't hit a 3-pointer, and don't know how to curve a soccer ball into the net. We should enjoy the time we have with our teammates and all that comes with winning and losing.

5) Stay Right In The Middle

Always remember the long game. Your ability to make an income is your most powerful asset. If you work too hard, too quickly, you run the risk of burning out too soon like I did. The Baby Boomers generation could easily stick with one firm for 20 years at a time. They were rewarded with steady raises, stock grants, and pensions. Gen X sticks around at one firm more like 6-7 years.

Meanwhile, Gen Y millennials has an even shorter timespan of 2-3 years at one firm. The key to building wealth is to let your money compound in a stable environment. Circumstances have changed over the years that force employees to be less loyal and move around a little more. That's fine.

Just make sure you don't eject from the work force completely. Instead, take it down a notch if you are an overachiever. Join the 80% of people who never get fired, and also never ascend very quickly.

Is Your Obsession With Being The Best Making You Miserable?

Americans work too hard at everything to try and obtain something that only a minority of people can achieve. Maybe we should all stop obsessing and all start relaxing a little more? I've always encouraged people to never fail due to a lack of effort, since effort requires no skill. But what if you are absolutely burned out? What if you no longer want to feel the consistent pain of disappointing others and yourself? Being average may just be the way to go.

For all you commenters who found my post “Are There Really People Who Work 40 Hours A Week And Complain Why They Can't Get Ahead” absurd, THANK YOU! You've helped me change my viewpoint that it's better to relax and enjoy the good life than try to be the best at everything.

As a show of good faith, I've set my Out Of Office on for three months this summer. This obsession with being the best is unhealthy! Now let's see if I can avoid the temptation of responding.


The Desire For Money And Prestige Is Ruining Your Life

Be Rich, Not Famous: The Joy Of Being A Nobody

Solving The Happiness Conundrum In Five Moves Or Less

Readers, are you obsessed with being the best? Do you work or try too hard to succeed? If the end game is happiness, and Europe has consistently the happiest people on Earth with high taxes, not a lot of innovation, cold winters, and big government, why are we so obsessed with being the best if it'll only make us miserable?

50 thoughts on “Your Obsession With Being The Best Is Killing Happiness”

  1. Let’s truly hope that America doesn’t turn into Europe, ever.

    Less innovation? I don’t see that happening. The ball has been rolling for the past two hundred years. And I hope to God it DOESN’T happen.

    The problem with “education” and “over-achievers” is that they see it as a be-all, end-all type of gateway. When you treat Life as school is when you start to excel. Traditional schools never taught any of our great innovators and thinkers what they needed to know to truly transform the world. Not saying that those things aren’t important, just saying that smart people will learn the important things on their own.

  2. Peter @

    This is very true. People often do not take a step back to enjoy the success that they already have, and just spend their lives chasing something that cannot be achieved as the bar forever continues to move higher.

  3. 1) I would pay little attention to this post and instead adopt the old U.S. Army tagline, “Be the best YOU can be.” If you strive for average, chances are you’ll be below that.

    2) The common life of companies these days is to go through M&A at some point. Striving to not be in the bottom 10% is not good enough.

    3) What one percenters have you been hanging out with…the top 5 to 10% of the one percenters who are directly related to Howard Hughes and live in a cave somewhere? The many dual income household families I know who earn 400K to 1 million/year AGI, thus qualifying them as one percenters, don’t worry about hiding where they live, don’t think there is a conspiracy against them, don’t feel the need to send their kids to private schools, don’t feel the need to hide, don’t feel discriminated against, etc. Unless their political leanings are middle of the road to conservative, they don’t complain about their tax burden. Seriously, where do you come up with this stuff?

      1. Thanks Sam. I’ll keep this brief because I definitely want to stay ‘stealth.’

        a) We’re one percenters by income but not by net worth. That’s an important distinction.

        b) We first achieved one percenter status about five years ago.

        c) We are a dual income household. Both of us are middle managers in high tech. We’ve never benefited from big option grants or payouts, being first in at a startup (on the contrary), etc.

        d) We are frugal in general but also spend gobs of money on stupid stuff like outrageously expensive health club memberships. Last year we saved about 41% of take home pay. I’d like to get that to 50%.

        e) We pay high taxes. Last year our effective Fed and CA income tax rate was about 45%.

        f) Our investment strategy is bone dead simple: 2 stock ETFs comprising about 75% of our net worth; BND for about 20% of our net worth; and cash for about 5% of our net worth.

        g) We are cord cutters. We typically watch one TV program and ‘jones’ through it during a period of a few weeks. But in general, we believe that TV sucks the juice out of your brain and makes you stupid.

  4. F. Samurai,

    Great article! It’s hard when you always go at everything with all that you have and you end up producing better results than others, understand more than others and in the eyes of “others” are simply “Better” than your peers. I will say those peers will start to resent you as soon as they see that you are “better” or are seen in a different light than they are and in the work place – can cause some serious tension. However, if you are doing your own thing and solely focused on what you are doing/in control of your projects – then let them be! If it isn’t in your blood to be average or to go at a moderate pace – it’s very hard to get to that point, and takes strong discipline to do so. I can relate to the healthy eating aspect, where now I’ll have a burger every once in a while or eat worse on certain days – trying to be more in moderation rather than “full throttle” healthy eating. It’s tough to tell yourself to be average, considering the long-run impact truly isn’t worth always trying to be the best. I’ll have to think about this one more. Great article and made me thing. Thanks!


  5. This is such a great post from Sam, that I decided to dedicate my first post to this. I’m from “good old europe” and maybe that kind of avarage person you think about. Or not? Who cares *g* Well I attended one of the best universities in my country. Keep in mind that in europe no horrible fees has to be paid to join it. My grades from (comparable to ) High-School were exactly avarage. So I did have to wait for a year to get accepted by that university.
    I was quite lazy in the bachelor phase, doing the minimum effort to get the graduation. So I knew I had to push a little bit more in the master phase. Result was that I got an award for the best master thesis of that year. That opened the door for a quite good job in the financial industry. Today, I’m working 35-40h a week which means that I don’t push it very hard. A job is a job and nothing more. I spent there my lifetime and get some money for it. I also don’t fear to get fired. Once I had a boss looking at my working hours and punished me in terms of salary. So I changed the team inside the company and still keeping the tasks and responsibilities. Having a good track record (even though this less working time) makes you valuable for a company. Just get your stuff done but don’t try to do it better than anybody else. Just be satisfied being avarage! You will not be the star who will everybody talk about. But being that star has that consequences Sam describes. You always have to push such hard to keep the level that you really should ask yourself if it is worth it. Being between the lower 20% and the top 20% makes you a quite comfortable life which results in deep confidence. Happiness is in my eyes a quite short-time feeling wheras confidence is the overall aim to have with yourself.
    As i’m not a natural english speaking person please be tolerant in case of my written words. Thanks!

  6. I love this post. It was so timely…I’m sitting here with my 3 kids (ages 15, 11 & 10) on the first day they are off of school. Our country and its competitiveness has ruined parenting! It’s not fun anymore…I know parenting shouldn’t always be fun but now I feel you have to have your kids in travel sports all year, accelerated programs, etc. My kids have friends going to physical therapy at the age of 10! They get tutored all year long. Miss out on friend activity so they can go to their 70 games of baseball at the age of 11! My husband & I are very educated, own our own business and make a very nice living so I feel we can “show” them what hard work can get them…but in moderation- there’s always another car/purse out there to buy! What’s the parenting thoughts out there on this subject??

    1. I feel your pain on this one! I have an 8 and a 5 year old and it is so frustrating that everyone we know has kids that are on travel teams and parents that have their kids in activities every day of the week. I don’t know of any who have tutors yet though.

      1. So what do we do??? Get on the rabbit wheel too??? I guess every kid is different and can handle different pressures. I say all in moderation. They have the rest of their lives to be stressed- right?!?!?

        1. I have tried very hard not to get on the rabbit wheeel. I feel like kids should be kids…they should play outside until dark, not run from activity to activity. Most sports are not even seasonal anymore, they are year round and it is killing me. I don’t remember doing anything in the summer…that’s a time to give the kids and adults a break. This summer my daughter has talked me into her trying out for competetive gymnastics. She has a 4 week trial starting next week and I am secretly hoping that she won’t be able to handle the time committment and effort it will take to be on team. But in this case, it is her own doing. She asked for this, she wants it and I have told her that if she wants to be good at something then she needs to practice, alot. I am seriously bummed though because up until now we have avoided activities in the summer months. That being said, we live 10 miles from the beach and we go there in the summer all the time. Sigh….I’m not sure what to do about the activities. My guess is that my daughter is competitive and wants to see if she can do it. So we will see what happens.

  7. Ben @ The Wealth Gospel

    I had that perspective when I first started my blog. I not only wanted to be among the best, but I wanted to in the fastest time possible. But when some personal things came up and I had to go on a 3-month hiatus, I learned a lot about life and myself.

    One of the main things was what you pointed out: “enjoy the sport”. As much as I want to be the best at everything I do, I’m one of those guys that’s good at a lot of things but not really great at anything. But since I’m now more focused on doing it because I love it, I’m earning more and I’m a lot less stressed out.

    Of course, that means my rebuilding process is going a lot slower than I want–and sometimes I get really antsy and impatient. But when I focus too much on being the best, the rest of my life suffers and in the end it just isn’t worth it.

    1. Christine — As a guy, I’d say the best thing we can do to live longer, based on this list you provided, is to become as bone thin as possible. And yes, I’m completely serious. Check out the average BMI of males in Japan versus the U.S.

      1. Christine Wilson

        I think you have a point there. 3 of the top 5 are Asian countries where the people are very skinny.

        I’m a little surprised that happiness and life expectancy aren’t more correlated though..

        Are these skinny people living long unhappy lives? LOL

          1. Interesting.. skinny when young.. gaining weight when older is good. Wonder when you hit that older part where its better to gain weight?

          2. I’d suggest looking at actual BMI data and longevity data by country — both available through Wikipedia. You won’t need a study to draw your own conclusions. France: They eat more fatty foods, in smaller portions, move more regularly throughout the day, are thinner than we are, and live longer than we do. Italy–similar. Spain–similar. And so on.

  8. Hmm, interesting point of view. I try to be the best and do whatever I do with as much passion and focus as I can. When I was younger I was more focused on what other people thought and that caused me to not try for new things or not try hard because I was worried about failing. I was always a really good athlete, but in my mind I didn’t want to try a new sport I didn’t know because I might not be good and if I wasn’t good then maybe I wasn’t a good athlete? I let others get into my head way too much instead of doing what I wanted to do.

    I don’t think there is any need to go to the best college or college at all depending on what someone wants to do. But if you go to college, I think you should give it your all and get your moneys worth.

    With health I think we should try to be as healthy as possible because it helps you feel better and think better. I don’t obsess with health, but I also stopped worrying about what others thought about me a while back.

    I am wealthy, but that won’t stop me from striving for more. That is part of the fun part of life, it is a challenge and a game. I am not worried and stressed about money, but I definitely want to be the best at what I do.

    I would disagree with working too hard to begin with and burning out. Maybe if you are in a corporate environment. If you are an entrepreneur and own your own business then working hard at the beginning is imperative. Work your butt off to create something awesome, then hire others to continue that awesomeness and you can slowly back off and enjoy life.

    I think many of the points you make come from people worried about what others think of them more than their own happiness. I have no problem having money and I don’t care that others may wonder where I got it, because I know where I got it. A vast majority of the rich made their money themselves, not through inheritance or a fluke. I think if people are open and honest about their money and share their good fortune, most people who know those people are excited and happy for them. The people that don’t know those people are the ones who wonder how they got so lucky and why should they have money when I don’t. I am more concerned with my friends and family than people I don’t know.

  9. Sam,

    This is a great post because it brings up a very interesting dynamic. It’s weird, because sometimes being “the best” or trying YOUR best is the very thing that makes people happy. But it’s also the root cause of most stress too.

    Perhaps these people are willing to take the highs with the lows – you’re stressed while you’re trying to accomplish whatever your goal is, but you’re that much happier once you finally reach your goal.

    While an obsession with being “the best” is probably unhealthy for most people, I think we can all agree that society would likely be a better place if EVERYONE tried to be “the best,” or, at the very least, do THEIR best.

    Generally, “A” people surround themselves with other “A” people, so they lack the perspective that so many people are the complete opposite – lazy, unmotivated, and just doing enough to “get by.”

    Another point, just tangentially related – I think most people have a “baseline” for happiness. No matter what they do, what they accomplish, etc., they will regress to this baseline equilibrium. It’s the very reason that people who make $200K/year are no happier than they were when they made $100K or $150K a year, after enough time passes.

    It’s not linear, of course. You’re infinitely happier making $50K a year than you are $5K a year, because in the latter situation, you probably can’t even cover life’s basic necessities.

    As with the income example, the “baseline” happiness probably doesn’t hold true with other extremes. Obviously if you work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, you WILL burn out, without some kind of systematic break built in.

    But if you normally work 10-hour days and you drop to 8-hour days, your initial happiness will be temporary. It will eventually regress. And it can swing in the other direction at the other extreme. You might drop to 1 hour of work per day and initially be happy, but will regress to a new unhappy baseline, because you’re bored and feel unaccomplished.

    Happiness is a very interesting concept, and maybe more complex than it seems. I’ll end this rambling and long-winded comment by saying that I agree with you – being genuinely obsessed with being the best is rarely the way to reach your optimal level of happiness.


    1. I agree with you and Krantcents about differentiating between being The Best and being Your best. Very important point!

      All we can ask is we be our very best, however, I think that also makes us quite miserable too if we’re always pushing ourselves to the max.

      For example, do you think you might start getting fatigued and unhappy if you continued with a daily interview on your site? That’s hard work!

  10. Justin Williams

    As someone who finished HS with a 4.85 GPA and the only first year student in my Calculus 3 class, I can attest that when you are at the top there is only one way to go, down. Expectations and stress are super high and you and others expect perfection. Once I started my career as a firefighter with a bunch of blue collar high school educated people, my average was still above and beyond others and I was actually harassed for knowing how to type, knowing everything(not), and for wasting my potential by not curing cancer. No joke, this was said to me at least 5 times by different people. Magically, I pretended to know nothing and slowly fell into the background. Now when I know something, people are surprised and think I am a genius. Looking back on the stress, not worth it, and I would have ended up in the same spot with a lot less work. ( I think the B.S. Chemistry/minor in Biology probably kept me out of a bit of trouble though.) Great post Sam, you are right on!

    1. Wow, Calculus 3?! I didn’t even make it past Calculus 1, b/c I was too dumb, the class was too early, and I didn’t need Calculus to calculate my grocery bill.

      I hope you are enjoying your career. Very neat!

  11. Great post, Sam! I can absolutely relate to a desire for perfectionism and how harmful it can be when you’re unable to meet your unrealistic expectations. And you’re completely right about performing somewhere in the middle. As much as I don’t like it.

  12. Sam,

    Good article. I think ambition is good and really, I do want driven people to succeed. In my life, I’m in contact with a very economically diverse group of people. Some are multi-millionaire executives. Many small business people. Some folks just working typical middle-class jobs. And….I even know people struggling on Medicaid.

    I can say this: Driven people usually are not very happy.

    I’m an old guy. I’m wealthy enough. Life is short. I’m all about balance! Not everything is about money. Do what makes you happy!

    If you are unfortunate to find yourself on your deathbed tomorrow, I seriously doubt that you are going to be thinking: “I wished I had worked more 90 hour work weeks so that my heirs could share in a larger estate”!

    1. Isn’t that a hoot? I can see how driven people are not happy. But I am thankful to be happy. I’m always smiling, which my friends find weird. It’s like I have this default grin. The only difference is that I get to write in public and have a nice community to pontificate with.

      But are unmotivated people happier? I find that hard to believe. But maybe!

      1. Good question.

        Being totally unmotivated would be an undesirable extreme. I wonder if that is even possible? In a mentally/physically healthy person?

        Perhaps happiness/satisfaction is a much more complex attitude than we realize.
        I do think most people do need some kind of constructive purpose in life.

      2. I’ll add: It really helps your happiness level to surround yourself with generally happy people.

        I find that it’s best to avoid negative people like the plague!

  13. I just want to be “my best” which I think is different from being “the best”. I make my best effort and I usually succeed. I think it comes down to realistic goals versus being the best.

    BTW, I had a colleague to graduated from Harvard with a degree in Spanish. Do you think he learned more than someone who went to a state university? Imagine a degree from Harvard and just teaching Spanish. I do not want to demean Spanish teachers or teachers in general, but do you need a Harvard degree to teach Spanish?

  14. Fantastic article. As always. The problem though is that although articles like this make a lot of sense and they give you an opportunity to reflect, it is nearly impossible (for me at least) to change who you are. Much of what is said here is wired into the brain and very difficult to modify as you get older. Its like asking a snake to stop slithering or nasty dog to stop biting. It takes a lot of effort not only of the individual but also a professional in most cases. I know I should be happy with my wealth and realize that I have accomplished a lot through hard work and sacrifice but that isn’t enough and it will never me enough to keep me from stop worrying or to be happy where I am financial. That is unfortunate because “worry” is the robber of “joy”. But enough downer crap. Great article. It made me feel good for a while and I hope it will help me balance.

    1. Difficult sure but not impossible, the brain is plastic and can respond to stimuli. The author of the book The Brain that Heals itself, shares the story of his Dad who at 70 (I think) suffered a major stoke, wheelchair bound, told he would never recover, yet 10 years later he died climbing. Mountian, recovered totally!!!

      Why becasue the brain can heal itself.

      Second I am not the same person I was (socially inept learning disabled adult) when my wife married me 30 years ago. Same with my brother in law, hot tempered and moody, he has changed totally over the last 10 years

      No one ever remains the same!

    2. Glad to hear.

      I went from 110% to 50% after I left Corporate America. It can be done, re-wiring the way you do things. But it takes time. I just channeled a lot of my effort into my writing instead, which I find very rewarding.

      1. I’m sure you’re better than me at math (no sarcasm), please explain how giving 110% of yourself is possible (sarcasm).

  15. Wow, thanks for sharing your drive and motivation. I did pretty well in school, but I wasn’t the best. I strive to improve, but I wasn’t that smart either. Now, I’m content to be in the upper 10-20%. Life is too short to be competing all the time especially when my genetic isn’t that great. Enjoy your summer off.

  16. Good article. I’m struggling with this, and think it’s a build-up over life that happens which makes it very hard to stop until you hit a catastrophe or wake-up call. Like you did, I’m going through what I think is severe burnout, but also leads to mental health issues. Perfectionism is a known trigger for anxiety and depression. But, how do you actually change your own character if ambition and perfectionism is what you value? It’s very hard to just turn off one day, or to set your standards lower.

  17. Sam,
    I love this article! I go to your website a couple times a week, usually when I’m stressed out at work. The articles along with the comments take my mind off my problems. This article in particular has me thinking why I bother trying so hard to make that extra buck. I guess we all have to figure out how much is enough.

  18. Good on ya, Sam! I remember a few months ago disagreeing with something you posted on GRS along the lines of “if you want to do anything, you should work hard be the absolute best you can possibly be at it”. An idea I disagree with wholeheartedly. I remember using the example of being able to play guitar. I wanted to learn how to play my favourite songs, to jam with others, do a few shows, and make up my own stuff. The thought that I “should” want to practice day and night ’til my fingers bleed so I can play like Joe Satriani is not only unappealing but it would completely suck all the fun out of it. It would make something I enjoy into a work-like task.
    I like to travel. I don’t research the hell out of it, pour over maps, and make sure I see absolutely everything. That’s not fun. I enjoy history. But when I took it as a major in university, I quickly dropped out because I found studying something I like 24/7 all year turns it into something I very much dislike. I usually try my hardest in sports, but I’ve never cared who won a game or put any stake in the outcome. I know that’s weird in a competitive society–but being 6’5″ and the eldest in my family, I’ve never really felt the need to compete with others. The best games I’ve ever played were with mixed teams of families, kids, and seniors playing beach volleyball in Mexico where nobody really keeps a score past 5 points. You cheer the loudest for the 5-year old who manages to knock it over the net.
    Do what you do well, enjoy it, be nice to others, no need to clobber them to show you’re “best”. The graveyard is full of the “best” people. The best and worst paths lead to ultimately the same destination. It’s the ride that makes the difference. Enjoy being just a passenger sometimes. Maybe listen to more reggae in your time off. ..And have fun.

    1. Thanks Edward. Oh, to be able to play the guitar well like you! I’d gladly trade that skill for lots and lots of money.

      A guitar is so beautiful, and I would much rather play the guitar for leisure than for an occupation, unless I was supremely gifted.

      It’s fun to write occasionally at GRS b/c the crowd there is so different than here. I thank them for allowing me to be more balanced.

  19. One thing I learned in life is that never settle with average and. So I disagree with you on staying right at the middle will bring you happiness in the long run.

    Life always have some unpredictable events, and there are ups and downs. If you just aim to stay at the middle, you tend to slack off and if your life is going for a down swing, it’s easy to drop to below 10%. Sometimes in a small team/groups in your work place (5 person in your grp), a small hiccup in your life/work easily cause you the job.

    so I always believe that you always give it your best shot, so it will keep you on the edge and not slack off. So when the time comes or a little R&R, you are at no risk of losing your job.

    Always set small goals, so you always feel like you accomplish something to keep yourself motivated.

    You said you get burned out after working 13 years of overtime. At least you accumulated enough wealth to be financial independent. If you just stay in the middle of the pack and never aiming for anything, instead of burnt out, you will be bored out of your job and eventually you quit or lose your job anyway.

    I do agree with work life balance, you don’t necessary have to work hard all the time, you have to work smart.

  20. The best article in some time, Sam. Very relevant to those of us who bust our humps every day.

    It’s interesting to think that we may be “Europeanized” in the next 100 years. Perhaps that’s just a natural progression of a society that’s been around longer.

    1. Thanks Jason. I thought my previous article about savings rates by wealth was pretty good too, no? :)

      We won’t need 100 years to turn into Europe. I say MAX 50 years.. if not 20 years, just in time for those of us under 45 to really enjoy life.

  21. How does one not get obsessed when the goal is not reached? I have alot of goals in life. I am constantly challenging time and myself to get better – be it a better cook, to earn more, better parent, better home, a better life in general. I know I am in a better place than most but still, it is the obsession that drives me to strive.

    If I have more than a million and multiple streams of income – perhaps then the obsession goes :-) But for now this is I – obsessed.

    1. Love it G! I don’t know. To leave something unfinished makes me feel very annoyed to the point that I must finish.

      Once you have millions, you will naturally want tens of millions. It never ends until you decide for it to end.

  22. I have always tried to improve myself, but I don’t really try too hard to be the best. I’m a bit lazy and being the best is too much work. Be it in sports or other fields, you need to spend a lot of hours practicing to be the best. I rather just spend a few hours to be good enough, haha.

    1. The best is when new college graduates expect to go straight to the corner office. It’s a wonderful phenomenon to observe.

      Nothing wrong with being a lazy! So long as one is happy with the results!

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