What Motivates Super-Achievers?

Is intense passion the best motivator for getting stuff done? It seems to be a reasonable enough proposition. When you look at the world’s top [insert-anything-here], they often seem to be driven by their demons. Maybe something happened to them when they were young that propelled them into a frenzy of productivity to prove that they could build something of value. Many times they are proving the world wrong, proving to themselves that they are strong enough or proving that they’re not the failures that their parents or society or their teachers thought they would be.

With this narrative being so common as to have almost become a cliche taken alongside the objective knowledge of the effects that stress and anger can have on physical and mental health, it’s worth re-examining these assumptions. Specifically:

  • Is there value in becoming a super-achiever. If so, what is it? Does it lead us toward the common, ultimate goal of flourishing? Is it better for society? Do some people have a duty to humanity to sacrifice their personal health for the greater good?
  • What is the best motivator to become a super-achiever? Is it actually anger or some other strong emotion that comes from a place of deep discontentment? Can the same level of achievement arise from a healthier emotional basis? An example a friend at work gave was: If there are two marathon runners and one is motivated by his or her ultimate fear and the other is motivated by pure devotion to action, is it a given that the first will win with all else being equal?

Seneca believed that there is never a place for anger or other negative emotions in the pursuit of virtuous goals:

An assertion: “Anger is useful because it puts more fight in people.” Drunkenness can be regarded in the same way: it makes people aggressive and reckless, and many have been better at handling a blade when they’re tipsy. Claim, too, that delirium and insanity are necessary for strength, because madness often makes people more powerful! Or consider this: hasn’t fear sometimes had the contrary effect of making someone reckless? Hasn’t fear of death roused even the most sluggish to battle? But anger, drunkenness, fear, and other things of this sort are foul and futile stimulants: they give no tools to virtue, which needs nothing that vices can give, they just give a little lift to a mind otherwise supine and abject. No one becomes braver by becoming angry except the sort of person who wouldn’t have been brave without being angry: anger thus doesn’t assist virtue; it substitutes for virtue. What of the fact that anger, were it a good, would attend all the most highly developed people—-whereas those who are most inclined to anger are babies and the aged and the sick? Everything weak is by nature given to complaint.

I’m not sure that Seneca was right, but I hope so. The famous Yoda quote was never more appropriate: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” My gut feeling is that super-archivers who are motivated by discontentment are much more likely to suffer and cause suffering than those who, as the Bhagavad Gita says, “perform action without attachment.”