You have to want to succeed as much as you want to breathe. Really?

I just saw this video, shared on Google+:

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.”

How Bad Do You Want It from Greyskale Multimedia on Vimeo.

The sentiment is common: in order to succeed, you have to want it so bad you burst a blood vessel. The only problem with this sentiment is that I don’t know that there’s any truth to it. Maybe it’s true in weight lifting (I’d like to see the study), but I’m not aware of psychological research or motivation research that supports it. While it’s true if you want something badly, you’ll go after it, it’s also true that too much urgency shuts down creativity, problem-solving ability, and even perception. There are plenty of domains where it’s possible to succeed without that kind of motivation1.

There’s a similar zen fable about enlightenment. The story ends differently. The student goes to the zen master and says, “Master, how long will it take me to become enlightened?” “Ten years,” replied the master. “What if I work at every day of the year, every waking hour, and try harder than I’ve ever tried before?” “Then, it will take a lifetime.”

I think we do ourselves a disservice in looking only at the “work unbelievably hard and you’ll succeed” situations in life.

There are plenty of successful people who are motivated by peace, serenity, and joy. And yet they still seize opportunity, they still do work, and they still get what they want out of life. But they don’t have to force themselves into an asthma attack to get there.

There are plenty of people sitting on their asses doing nothing. I agree that asthma-attack motivation is better than nothing for those folks. But it would be nice to put the last few decades’ research into the psychology of achievement into practice and teach people to achieve without needing this stress-filled style.

There are plenty kinds of achievement that are motivated the other way. Do yourself a favor and find one of them. Train hard, keep your eye on your goal, but don’t give yourself a heart attack in the process.

1 Forbes recently did a study of the Forbes 400 and discovered that half of those folks inherited their money. I would submit that those folks reached positions of success without the kind of unbelievable franticness we see in this video.

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15 Responses to You have to want to succeed as much as you want to breathe. Really?

  1. Jacqueline Rosen says:

    This is an interesting video; it provokes a number of thoughts. He’s training with such alignment, vigor, & strength that his discourse takes on added authority. In the beginning, his discussion of focus & authentic priorities seems apt and courageous in the face of so many who promote their own false priorities. However, as you say Stever, this ethos of the frantic as a prescription for success seems way off the mark. And in contrast to the in-your-face daring of his tone, this paean to success seems to be more received values from an over hyped commercial culture. What is his definition of success? What happens when a goal is reached with ease and speed? Identity crisis? Collapse? Many who coach writers in Hollywood urge in-depth preparation for success. Success can be much more difficult to handle than failure. I once heard a great tennis coach interviewed before the US Open. He gave lessons year round in Manhattan, but in the weeks before the Open many famous competitors would book time with him. The reporter asked, “You must be completely booked up now?”. His reply was fascinating. “No, I have time, if you want a lesson.” the reporter was shocked, “how is that possible?” The coach answered, “most people don’t want to win.” Perhaps our athlete in the video is talking about winning. I think if we can call our real successes winning, we’ll be very wise.

  2. Emily says:

    I agree that there are other forms of motivation, but you obviously are missing the point of what he is actually trying to say. It’s a metaphor! It’s not literally about working yourself so hard that you can’t breathe. Breathing is automatic. We have to do it or we won’t survive. Cut yourself off from breathing for a few minutes (if you can even do it for that long), and you’ll be wanting to breathe so badly after about 30 seconds. Eventually you HAVE to breathe. He takes this idea and apply it to success. He even gives other examples: when you want to succeed more than you want to sleep(again you don’t really have to not sleep), when you want to succeed more than you want to party, etc. It is meant to say that if you want to succeed, you are willing to put that ahead of everything else that is not as important because you HAVE to succeed.

    This has a great message, and I would recommend it to everyone, not just athletes.

    • Stever says:

      Emily–I understand the message. I simply disagree. I don’t believe that level of “needing to succeed” is either necessary or sufficient for success. I know plenty of people who need to succeed that badly and are basket cases of self-loathing because they never managed to succeed. I also know many people who succeeded not because they had a strong drive to succeed but because they were lucky, or deliberate, or simply clear-headed enough to spot opportunity when it came by.

      • Kevin says:


        In response to this:

        1 Forbes recently did a study of the Forbes 400 and discovered that half of those folks inherited their money. I would submit that those folks reached positions of success without the kind of unbelievable franticness we see in this video.

        You are simply equating success to money. If that’s how you define success, then you are surely misguided. Most would agree that success is the measurement difference between where one came from and where they are now. In other words, most would agree that a homeless man who worked his way up to making $100k is more successful than Paris Hilton who just inherited her money by being born. So, please, change your perception of sucess.

        Also in response to:

        I also know many people who succeeded not because they had a strong drive to succeed but because they were lucky, or deliberate, or simply clear-headed enough to spot opportunity when it came by.

        If you are going to rely on LUCK or WAITING for the right opportunity to come you way then you are simply decreasing your chances to succeed. Sure, it’s possible, but the implication of the quote is that your chances will greatly increase if you have the mindset to have a “Succeed or die” attitude.

        In other words, take 100 people who have that mindset to want to succeed as badly as they want to breathe and compare them to 100 people who think they can succeed by luck and waiting for the right opportunity…sure there will be handful of the “Opportunity spotters” that will succeed, but a significantly higher amount of the hard-workers will outpace their low-paced counterparts.

        Sure, there are plenty of other forms of motivation, but ask any person who has truly great accomplishments (not just a lot of money), and they will all say that an incredible drive and motivation was key to their success and I’m willing to wager most would agree with the quote in its metaphorical sense.

        • Stever says:

          I agree with pretty much everything you said, except that “ask any person who has truly great accomplishments an they will all say that drive and motivation was key.” They will all say that, yes. And as you point out, for the ones who sat back and inherited everything, that will not be true. Furthermore, we can’t claim that drive & motivation leads to success without also looking for people who had drive and motivation but didn’t succeed. That’s the quadrant we never look at.

          A similar logical fallacy would be to interview everyone on the Fortune 400 and find out they all drank mother’s milk as infants. You could then conclude “mother’s milk leads to great success,” and you’d be wrong. You have to look at everyone who drank mother’s milk, and make sure the correlation is tight. (And even if it turns out to be, you still need to set up a controlled experiment of the type you suggest in your post, in order to establish that there’s a causal link.)

          I find my experience with Get-it-Done Guy very instructive. I planned to hire a PR firm to promote the podcast, but before the PR firm started, the podcast hit #1 on iTunes. Had I hired the PR company, I would have concluded “hiring a PR company got my podcast to #1 on iTunes.” In fact, since the PR company hadn’t started yet, I did NOT reach that conclusion, but I do see how easy it would have been to see the correlation and conclude—evidently erroneously—that my PR activities were what led to the podcast’s success.

      • Ted says:

        Stever, i dont think you could be any more wrong

        • Stever says:

          Ted, I’m always happy to discuss alternative points of view. Do you have any research you can point to, or specific examples or stories? Simply believing “we must drive ourselves insane with desire in order to accomplish something” does not make it true. I’ll need more than a simple assertion to have a conversation.

  3. John says:

    I do enjoy your analogy to the zen master, but I do think in the end the storyteller in the video is telling the same thing. According to the video, success is two different things: the seeker of success in the story defines success as getting lots of money; but in the end, the storyteller says that success isn’t defined by money but defined by feeling that success inside of you.

    But sometimes that journey is accomplished through lots of hard work and pain and struggle. Sometimes you only find that out once you go through those experiences. But those people don’t go through life thinking the whole time ‘I need to fail, I need to struggle, I need to struggle, I need to feel pain, I need to devote my life’ – it’s just sometimes the way life is experienced. I mean just as cheesy as it sounds, but it’s like the way kids only learn about the hot kettle until they get burned. Some people it does take the extreme to realize your goals.

    It’s your mindset going into all that matters. And I think that’s the story that both the zen master and this video are trying to tell you.

  4. M says:

    I think the main point of the video was to identify the “secret to success” (and to get you all riled up and inspired). Based on what you wrote Stever, I gather that you think there are other factors involved besides hard work. And it’s definitely worth mentioning that luck and timing play a big role in it and it seems plausible that even “too much urgency shuts down creativity, problem-solving ability, and even perception”.
    I’m not successful enough to say what the secret to success is. But I think that in the case of professional sports, crazy work ethic clearly pays its dividends. I know when it comes to training physically, the results you see are closely related to the time and effort you put it. I’m pretty sure if you look at Olympic athletes, they got to where they are because of time and commitment, that waking up at 5 to practice for 3 hours every day type of thing…since they were 8 years old or whatever. It’s crazy and sometimes a little sad but it’s a level of commitment that separates them from a world of mediocre.
    You have a point in saying that there are other ways to success. But I think this video succeeds (haha) in giving some people a boost of motivation and perspective that might just help them get what they want. It’s elegant in that it’s simple and can be easily applied. If you apply it to everything in life (like enlightenment), I can see it falling apart. Sometimes success can be achieved by loving what you do, or working hard for something or someone. But I can’t argue against getting better results when you work harder.

    Also: “But it’s not simply a case of the rich getting richer. The Forbes 400 grows more meritocratic over time. An all-time high 70% of this year’s list are self-made, up from 55% in 1997.” (The Forbes 400: The Richest People in America, 2011 by Luisa Kroll and Kerry A. Dolan Wednesday, September 21, 2011.)

    • Stever says:

      I agree that when it comes to physical effort and measurable physical output, output is typically highly related to the amount of work and effort that goes into a venture. For work that depends on intelligence, insight, relationship-building, strategy, heart/compassion, etc., however, I think there is a big case to be made that learning to slow down, tap into your intellect, intuition, etc. is just as valid a route to success.

  5. Corey says:

    You say that you know people who “needed” to succeed that badly but are now self loathing individuals.. I have a few questions: Did they just need to succeed because they were doing badly in life? Did they try to succeed as this video defines it?(as bad as the need to breath..) Perhaps if they had watched this video they would have put more effort into “succeeding” and would not be self-loathing because of their lack of effort (i’m assuming that was the case).. Also as for the people with luck, that is their bonus. Because a few people get lucky does not mean everyone else will. Also “simply clear headed enough to spot opportunity”, to me is part of attempting to be successful. Obviously these people who spotted the opportunity were in the market to obtain some success, but how much success?.. Also you say you disagree with the video because “needing that level of success either unnecessary or sufficient” imagine an NHL player who didn’t train as much as others, who didn’t have as much drive to win as the others and didn’t put their mind into the sport as much as others.. (note they are doing all of these three majorly important tasks, just not at the same level) That specific NHL player would suffer greatly VS a player who did all of these tasks(I’m assuming he also would not receive as much ice time and a smaller amount of money). Now this brings me to the point of my argument, in this video he is talking about a level of success that does take effort and will make you loose sleep and is draining but you have to be willing to push through that to make it to the top. the video in my opinion is not saying you will not succeed if you don’t have a huge amount of motivation and drive to succeed (the need to breath being the metaphor directed at motivation in the video) it is saying if you want to be at the top, if you want to be the one that is used as a model for others (ex. sidney Crosby, dispite his recent uuhh.. malfunctions) you have to have the drive to succeed more than anyone else.. and just forget about the notion of bursting blood vessels, it’s not the point.

  6. Sarah says:

    Steve- I wholeheartedly agree with what I think you are trying to say. I am one of those people that you are talking about. I don’t think much time-literally-goes by without me wanting to succeed. For me that success is what most people consider the basics, being a good mom, being able to have a job, being able to hold a job. I am on disability for a mental disorder and I want success so bad it tears me apart. At the end of (most) days I (feel) I am no more successful than anything except at feeling like a failure. We have to give ourselves grace to fail for the purpose of longevity.

    • amy says:

      You say that you feel like a failure but you really need to look into the bigger picture and evaluate all the the things you have accomplished that you wouldnt have if you didnt try even if its tge smallest thing such as getting out of bed as small things make big things happen all thd little small things add up

  7. Sam says:

    Is money really the greatest measure of success? I wouldn’t think so, especially if it had not been earned by the person with it, as you mentioned in your footnote.

  8. amy says:

    Omg this guy writting the article has overegared dont you have anything better to do if your realky intreseted in the research of it then research it instead of critizing someone. I have watched this and it really expired me and I am happy that someone took time out of their day to motivate us because he was once homeless and share us their journey so wecan conquer.

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