5 Reasons to Stop Chasing Success: It’s a Treadmill to Nowhere

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you tend to fixate on your goals? What do success stories often leave out?

Common self-help advice encourages you to set and relentlessly pursue goals designed to realize your ideal version of yourself. Oliver Burkeman notes that striving to achieve such goals creates five adverse effects that prevent you from attaining true happiness and success.

Keep reading to learn how chasing success too often leads to failure and dissatisfaction.

1: You Become So Fixated on Your Goals That You Overlook Better Opportunities

Chasing success often entails the unwavering pursuit of specific goals. Oliver Burkeman argues that this can make you lose sight of whether your goals serve your true needs, leading you to ignore opportunities that might offer a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Example: You’re so focused on achieving a promotion that you overlook lateral moves within your company that could offer valuable experience, greater long-term advantages, and ultimately more job satisfaction.

(Shortform note: Psychologists clarify why you might fixate on goals that ultimately won’t satisfy you. Most people crave certainty—knowing what to expect makes you feel safe. Therefore, many focus on goals tied to a predictable life path and develop biases that prevent them from looking beyond this path. However, while these biases provide comfort, they also keep you trapped in unfulfilling situations: When you feel dissatisfied, instead of questioning whether your chosen goals are right for you, your biases convince you that your unhappiness is a personal failure. This perception of failure breeds insecurities, making it difficult to move past your comfort zone to pursue more satisfying goals.) 

2: You Feel So Inspired by Success Stories That You Fail to Adequately Prepare

Success stories, a staple of self-help content, aim to inspire and motivate you by showcasing those who, despite overwhelming obstacles, maintained a positive state of mind and achieved massive success. Burkeman cautions that such narratives can foster a false sense of assurance and distort your understanding of what’s truly necessary to achieve success.

He points out that these stories present a biased view that omits the stories of the many who maintained positivity but didn’t achieve their goals. In this biased representation of reality, maintaining a positive mindset directly correlates with achieving success. Immersing yourself in these stories can lead you to overlook success’s complexity and adopt ineffective positive mindset strategies, leaving you ill-prepared to overcome challenges on your path toward your goals.

Example: You read inspirational accounts of entrepreneurs who, despite taking significant financial risks, achieved monumental feats thanks to their unwavering positivity. You assume your positivity will carry you to equal success and invest all of your savings into your company. However, what many of these accounts left out was that these entrepreneurs didn’t stake all their money in their dreams—they kept a safety net to rely on in case of failure. Because you invested everything you had, your company is left unable to weather hard times. 

(Shortform note: Research suggests that the tendency to overvalue success stories is linked to narrative bias—the innate preference for cohesive and satisfying narratives over random facts. This bias has a dual impact: It encourages those recounting their success to selectively highlight details that craft a compelling story, sidelining less enticing but pivotal moments. Simultaneously, it drives listeners or readers to gravitate toward narratives that are both entertaining and easy to digest. As a result, the nuanced, less glamorous components of success often get overshadowed.)

3: Your Premature Sense of Accomplishment Undermines Your Motivation

One widely encouraged mindset strategy for achieving goals is positive visualization: Imagining the joy and satisfaction you’ll feel once you’ve achieved your goal. This strategy is meant to motivate you to take action toward your goals by giving you a taste of success. However, Burkeman warns, imagining future success often backfires, fostering complacency.

Each time you imagine your future success, you trick your mind into believing you’ve already achieved your goals. This creates a premature sense of victory that feels so tangible and gratifying that it saps your drive to take the necessary actions to make your goals a reality.

Example: The elation and satisfaction you feel after imagining yourself receiving a prestigious award feels so rewarding and tangible that you start slacking at work because you believe you’ve “earned” the right to relax.

(Shortform note: In addition to decreasing your motivation, visualizing future success may also drain the physical energy required to achieve your goals. According to one study, imagining success lowers systolic blood pressure—the force exerted on artery walls when the heart contracts and pushes out blood. Elevated systolic pressure often signifies increased levels of alertness and energy. On the other hand, a drop in systolic blood pressure can lead to lethargy, decreased alertness, and reduced energy, hindering your ability to actively work toward your goals.)

4: Your Unrealistic Expectations Lead to Disappointment

The strategies we’ve mentioned so far—setting goals, reading success stories, and practicing positive visualizations—all encourage you to continually expect the best. Burkeman suggests that this leads to disappointment and disillusionment each time life fails to conform to your expectations

He explains that, to maintain a persistently positive outlook, you often need to deny anything that makes you think or feel negatively. This denial causes you to disconnect from reality and cultivate a fragile sense of happiness that’s shattered by any deviation from your positive outlook. For example, when you receive praise, you feel happy because this feedback aligns with your positive expectations. However, when you receive even minor criticisms, you feel demoralized because you only expected praise.

Unmet Expectations Can Trigger Maladaptive Daydreaming

Research supports what Burkeman says, indicating that the stronger your attachment to positive expectations, the more difficult it is for you to face reality. As a result, in addition to feeling disappointed when life doesn’t align with your expectations, you might also struggle to appreciate what you do have—because you’re continually measuring reality against an ideal.

Further, psychologists suggest that frequent disappointment can lead some people to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms that further disconnect them from reality. One such mechanism is maladaptive daydreaming—when people avoid real-life challenges by escaping to an idealized world where expectations are always met and setbacks don’t exist. The more they indulge in these daydreams, the more the line between fantasy and reality blurs. This confusion amplifies their vulnerability to real-world disappointments, driving them further into their fantasies.

5: Your Pursuit of Perfection Breeds Discontent

Self-help materials often depict people living perfect lives. Burkeman argues that such portrayals encourage you to pursue superficial achievements over genuine happiness and to view any deviation from this ideal as a failure. As a result, you waste your energy masking your “imperfections,” leaving little energy to discover what truly brings you happiness.

Example: Your attempt to curate a picture-perfect existence on Facebook traps you in a cycle of comparison and self-critique that makes you more conscious, and less accepting, of your “imperfections.” So you focus on hiding your so-called flaws rather than on making the best out of them.

Chasing Perfection Feeds the Desire for External Validation

Another way this portrayal of perfection might make you unhappy is by fuelling your desire for external validation (the need to feel accepted and praised). This isn’t just about wanting to be perfect but about wanting to be seen as perfect. Multiple authors, including Brianna Wiest (101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think) and Neil Pasricha (The Happiness Equation) suggest that the need for validation motivates many of your thoughts and behaviors, contributing to a feedback loop that intensifies unhappiness.

Self-help materials often encourage buy-in by implying that attaining perfection is the only way to guarantee happiness, admiration, and approval. You chase this ideal, hungry for the promised rewards. The closer you get to achieving this ideal image, the more validation you receive—but the more you measure your life as it is now against this ideal standard, the more inadequate you feel. This sense of inadequacy propels you deeper into the cycle, seeking more external validation.

For example, an influencer posts a photo that captures their “perfect” lifestyle. The influx of likes and comments validates their post, encouraging them to maintain this image. However, when they see another influencer’s seemingly more “perfect” post, they feel overshadowed and inadequate, despite their own success. This inadequacy motivates them to post even more pristine images, aiming to recapture the validation they think they’ve lost.

To sum up, seeking external validation is like being on a treadmill that’s constantly accelerating. The more you run, the faster it goes, making it increasingly difficult to keep up, let alone find genuine happiness.
5 Reasons to Stop Chasing Success: It’s a Treadmill to Nowhere

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  • Why forcing yourself to think positive thoughts doesn't make you happy
  • How typical self-help advice can sometimes make you feel worse
  • How to experience contentment even amid seemingly negative experiences

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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