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The Dark Side of Drive

May 8, 2018

“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” – Angela Duckworth

People with ambition are a captivating breed. They’re optimistic. They want to have an impact on the world, in big ways and in small. They have that special something, what Francis Galton called zeal.

They have drive.

I get inspired by these people and strive to work with them. Their willingness to do good is admirable. The world would be a better place with more of that goodness.

But like anything in life, there is the other side of the proverbial coin. Despite its shiny appearance, drive has a dark side. And believe me, it can be dark.

I should know. I have been through the darkness—I have burned out. And so have so many people that we all know.

Drive is commendable. It’s a force to be reckoned with. Anything of note that’s been accomplished in the world has been driven forward by someone’s drive.

But like any superpower, there within lies the hero’s greatest weakness, too. Drive leads to impact and change. But drive can also lead to burnout, disorientation, and paralysis. Drive can lead to no impact and change at all.

And that’s because of the dark side of drive.

The light and the dark

Drive means you want to be productive…but you don’t always know what you’re doing or why.

You want to do, do, do. You want to make real change happen. You want to provide value. You’re driven to do good, and to do. You’re allergic to laziness…

…until you confuse laziness with patience. So you do, do, and do, for the mere sake of doing. You go around in circles instead of heading anywhere in particular. You’re always busy, but you’re not always making headway.

Drive means you set high standards…that can become obstacles you never dare taking on instead.

You set a high bar for yourself and for others. Your level of expectation brings out your best and unlocks hidden potential…

…until you set the bar so high that you’ll never be able to reach it. So you’re never satisfied with yourself or others. In the end, paradoxically, you end up not pushing yourself completely—or not even trying at all—because you can never do enough.

Drive means you’re focused on the next thing…so it can be hard to fully experience what’s going on right now.

You want to achieve new things. You think ahead, you strategize, and you’re focused on what’s to come. You have an unstoppable inner force that propels you forward

…until you’re so focused on the next thing you that you never experience the what’s happening now. You don’t notice the scenery that passes you by, and you immediately forget where you’ve been. You’re so obsessed with the destination that you miss the ride.

Drive means you’re always thinking about doing things…but you can easily confuse thinking with actual accomplishment.

Your head is filled with ideas for new ventures, new ideas, new things to do. Your mind races with notions of how to change the world…

…until you’re so preoccupied with your thoughts that you become paralyzed. Your thoughts get in the way of actually doing anything. And then you think even more to compensate for the lack of acting with drive. You get stuck.

Drive means you identify yourself with being driven…but you feel guilty whenever you’re not accomplishing anything.

You see yourself as a driven, ambitious person. You’re a mover and a shaker. You make things happen, and you dare to dream big. You are driven…

…until things don’t go as planned. Then it’s not only the actions that failed. You feel like you failed. You feel worthless. And whenever you’re not driving forward, you feel guilty about standing still.

Drive management

Drive is a superpower. It’s an unquenchable desire to move forward and to accomplish things in the world. But drive needs to be handled with respect. It needs to be observed and be kept on its leashes. It needs to be managed.

Here’s five questions to ask yourself to manage your drive.

1) What are you driving towards?

The direction you set is more important than the force you apply. Maximum drive and no direction will get you lost or make you go around in circles. A clear direction and minimum drive might take longer, but you will get you where you need to go, sooner or later.

To let your drive run free is like letting the bull loose in the china shop—it will lead to an impact, but not the one you want. Channeling your drive leads to impact with intention. What is your direction? And have you chosen it?

2) What do you notice along the way?

It’s not much of a journey if you’re locked in your car, staring straight ahead without blinking. Instead: look left, look right. Stop to take in the sights. Enjoy the scenery, and reminisce of what you’ve passed along the way. What do you see?

3) When was the last time you filled up your tank?

Drive is not a never-ending energy source. Like any supply of fuel and power, it needs replenishment. Your access to drive will always be there; what’s needed is recovery. How willing are you to stop and fill up the tank?

4) Who’s driving with you?

Driving on your own can be liberating…for a while. But the most rewarding of adventures aren’t travelled alone. Coaches and mentors can give feedback on whether you’re controlling your drive or whether your drive is controlling you. More importantly, who else do you bring along with you for the ride? Who do you let in on your journey?

5) How long are you willing to drive?

If only I get there, I’ll be fine”, you tell yourself. “I’ll be fine when I reach my destination.” Yeah right. Who are you kidding? You’re driven, and you’ll always be driven. As soon as you reach your destination, you’ll pick a new one. And then a new one after that.

If you instead view your journey as an infinite road that can never be finally reached, you’ll never feel like you’ve never arrived—because you can’t. Are you driving down a finite path or an infinite road?

Staring into the fire

Just because drive has a dark side doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. Drive is crucial for any type of accomplishment. It provides the fuel to break new ground, and the ability to persevere when the going gets tough. Without “capacity, zeal, and vigour,” said Francis Galton, one “cannot hope to make a figure in the world.”

But everything in life has an underbelly. It’s the yin and the yang, the night and the day. Darkness depends upon light, and there would be no light without the dark.

By avoiding the dark side of drive you actually make it worse. You blind yourself to the fire. Close your eyes for too long, and it will either burn you, or it will go out completely.

Instead, dare to raise your gaze and look that fire straight in the eyes. See its dangers. Treat it with respect. And then use it to your advantage.

Drive is a fire that can burn you. But it can also warm you, provide light, and cook your food. But that means being humble before its powers, and embracing all of it, dangers and all.

To manage and channel your drive you need to see it first—all of it. How much of your drive are you willing to see?


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