How to Stop Aspiration from Becoming Toxic Desperation
Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
I’m not sure the masses are quietly desperate. But maybe you know what Thoreau was writing about.
Any dream you can’t act-toward today is exhausting.
#1. Toxic aspiration requires perfect timing.
Any aspiration you can’t act-toward today is a fantasy that drains the life from your heart.
Aspiration – apart from action – leads to quiet desperation.
If you can’t act-toward your dream today, find a new dream.
Acting-toward might be as simple as learning from those who are achieving what you aspire to accomplish. (I use ‘achieving’, not ‘achieved’ intentionally.)
One thing is sure. Life tumbles downward until you do something.
#2. Toxic aspiration needs others to act first.
Expectation that others need to do this-or-that before you pursue your aspiration is an excuse for inaction.
Waiting for others to act turns dreamers into manipulators.
Big dreams are poison when they freeze you in your tracks. Suppose you want to be a professional volleyball player. Set a small actionable goal. Play High School volleyball, for example.
#3. Toxic aspiration waits for the perfect step forward.
The future is built one imperfect step at a time.
You can’t build anything in the future unless you’re a time traveler. The future is always built in the imperfect present.
The only way to change the future is to act today!
- Small actionable goals are better than dramatic goals that freeze you in your steps.
- Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection.
- Perfectionists are mediocre. Forget about radical change if imperfection is intolerable. Perfectionism is stagnation. Everyone who pursues excellence is NOT a perfectionist.
- Failure and falling short enable aspiration. Failure is an option.
Thoreau was at least partially right. Anyone who doesn’t rise to their aspiration lives a life of quiet desperation.
What makes an aspiration toxic?
How are you navigating aspiration?
What makes an aspiration toxic? If we choose the Negative approach, I see the Toxicity side, if we choose the positive approach I see aspiring side to be an achiever. This becomes a mindset that we are where we are or where we have come from to get us where we are today and journeying for the future, remove the blockages.
How are you navigating aspiration? Moving forward with confidence has been a builder/Achiever approach that has worked for me. Knowing we have the capabilities to handle situations in the past and present push us to succeed.
Thanks Tim. The idea of confidence speaks to me. It’s not so much a guarantee of results as it is an assurance that we can act in a productive way right now.
I think creative innovation is probably the best daily reminder in pursuit of bigger dreams. It really keeps the power within yourself to respond to life with courageous steps forward…because there are always obstacles. Self awareness and confidence in your abilities are the foundation.
I think aspiration starts with a vision. A vision may be somewhat perfectionist. “My vision is to become a professional volleyball player.” Then comes goals. A goal is not always achievable but is actionable. “My goal is to make the HS varsity team.” The goal is supported by objectives. “This year I’m going to go to volleyball camp and try out for the team.” Acting on objectives with the goals and vision in mind aligns capacity and reality. “Since there is a pandemic, I’m going to set the ball to myself and spike it into the side of the garage 50 times a day.” If you only think about the vision but stay on the couch, then that’s toxic. Adding goals, objectives, and taking action erases the toxicity. Dan is tough on perfectionists and the potential for inaction leading to toxicity, but sometimes it’s OK to think about perfect outcomes so long as you use them to guide your next steps.
Thanks Glenn. Your insight re: a perfect vision makes sense to me. You aspire to a golden city on a hill. The aspiration will never be achieved. Success is in the pursuit.
As long as aspiration doesn’t paralyze it seems healthy and useful.
Glenn, this helps! My job has turned out a bit differently due to changes within the company. I can aspire on different angles. 1. Aspire to be the best leader while in my current position. 2. Aspire for a more rewarding situation with a different company or starting my own company.
I think there is health in understanding when the goals/vision have overrun us, become a toxic aspiration, learning to do this in real time, not retrospect, is a real leadership gift.
…Your post has me thinking deeper, and new patterns… thanks!
Thanks Ken. Really interesting about monitoring our progress toward our aspiration and deciding if it’s not working in real time.
Thanks for this post.
Sometimes a leader needs to feel quiet desperation and acknowledge it in order to reset priorities and focus. Some push back on even acknowledging that they are feeling that way—-I think that was part of Thoreau’s point as well. What’s worse is a situation where the leader is pushing a team toward a goal and the team is feeling quietly desperate. Leverage the desperation to find a new path of hope and energy.
Thanks for jumping in, Roger. I couldn’t agree more. It’s useful to feel our feelings. They might tell us something that isn’t working. Or, positive emotion might indicate something that is working.
It’s also useful to acknowledge that emotion can lead us astray.
This touches on a lot of the happiness/success at work memes that are out there. All the “find a way to make money doing what you love” stuff. In some ways I think the kindest thing is to be brutally honest and say “you are not going to”.
Want to make a living as an ornithologist, archaeologist or model maker? Unless you are definitively in the top 0.1%, forget it. There are people in the top 5% who will actually PAY for the privilege of working in the field, so the chances of anyone paying you to do so are roughly non-existent.
The problem is that in the world of work, there are very few people whose aspirations are to be a better widget maker or toilet cleaner. Sometimes, the gap between what your heart aspires to and what the world will let you aspire to is equally toxic.
Thanks Mitch. Your comment speaks to something that’s on my mind. Perhaps the greatest aspiration is to become our best self. It’s not so much about what we do as it is about who we become. In that sense, aspiration applies to any situation.
This is a great post. I am experiencing some toxic aspiration myself right now and while I know it is toxic, I needed to read this! Thanks!
Thanks Emily and best wishes as you move forward.
What makes an aspiration toxic?
1. Unrealistic. “I aspire to play hockey in the NHL.”
2. Someone else’s goal. “My father wants me to become a CPA so I guess I’ll go in that direction.”
3. Victim. “I aspire to be a leader but I never had the right boss to help me.”
Thanks Paul. Boom… It’s incredibly easy to adopt someone else’s goal. What a formula for disaster and frustration.
Thanks for pulling the curtain back on Thoreau’s quote. I have seen in others and experienced quiet desperation, but never dissected the process that leads us there. This is very helpful!
Thanks Michael. It’s a pleasure to serve. I have begun to appreciate that I am the cause of my own frustration/desperation and it’s a disquieting thought.
I know perfectionism is a curse, I know it firsthand, but I’ve never heard it expressed so powerfully than “Any aspiration you can’t act toward today is a fantasy that drains the life from your heart.” Your comment about how easy it is to (cop out and) adopt someone else’s goal likewise hits like a hammer. Wonderful post, thanks.