Are Patience, Humility, and/or Obsession Needed for Success?

Best Practices

When you read self-help books, you can expect that you will need to analyze them carefully to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many such books can be very helpful if you look at the practical advice and rethink the validation of it for yourself. Too often, the explanation for why something works is mistaken.

I sometimes help members of the Thinking Lab do this rethinking. Here is a selection of my answers to questions from Thinking Labbers.

Is patience a virtue?

People often say patience is a virtue

I disagree with this. It is sometimes necessary, but it is not a principle to follow. If you notice, nearly every time Ayn Rand uses the term “patience,” she modifies it as a “too long-suffering patience.” Action is what is needed to gain values, not waiting. If you’re not getting a reasonable payoff for your effort, you need to find a different approach — one that pays off sooner.

and that success demands delaying gratification.

That is true. In order to succeed, you need to be willing to experience discomfort — quite a bit of discomfort — and that is what delaying gratification involves.

I’ve heard you talk about achieving payoffs at every level: goal, objective (1-3 months), key result (2 weeks), and task (< 2 hours). That seems to be opposite advice.

To justify working through the unpleasant parts, you need to see for yourself that there will be some payoff for every action. Moreover, you need to see it with certainty. Certainty that an action is in your rational self-interest is the basis of the courage and confidence to follow through. But the longer-scale the task, the more you risk putting in effort that doesn’t pay off. Any doubt you have about the outcome will create conflict over putting in the effort.

This is why I teach that pleasure needs to be built into the process. You do not just do a lot of heavy lifting and go through unpleasantness for months with the nebulous expectation that sometime in the distant future it will pay off. You don’t put off the experience of pleasure beyond the foreseeable future. There needs to be some payoff in the near-enough future that you can see that your current effort, right now, is worth it — that it’s worth delaying gratification for. This is true for doing an hour of email (which could be unpleasant) or a 2-week task (which could have a lot of challenging ups and downs in it).

Of course, your certainty does not guarantee that you will succeed. Certainty means you have no reason to doubt your conclusion — it integrates with everything you know. It does not guarantee your conclusion is true. It guarantees that it is proper to act on it.

The longer range the goal, the more likely you will have unforeseen difficulties along the way. But if you consistently figure out how to break down your longer-scale goals into 2-week key results and 2-hour tasks that have real payoffs, the occasional setback, failure, or course correction is not a problem. You will have had so much day-to-day success that your momentum helps you over the difficult spots. And if there is a big mistake, you guarantee that you catch it sooner rather than later, so you can adjust course.

(I teach this process in my 12-session course on “Rational Goal-Setting” in the Thinking Lab.)

In short, what you need to succeed is not patience, but a goal-setting process that ensures you have the momentum to get through the difficult parts of your ambitious goals, and course correct quickly if you misconceive them.

Is humility required to grow?

I frequently read advice about how I need to “swallow my pride” or else I’ll stop learning and growing. Or, I need to “check my ego at the door/overcome my ego” so I’m not afraid to make mistakes during the learning process. Or, I need to “humble myself” and admit there’s room to grow.

Humility is definitely a vice. It is the conviction that you are not good enough, and certainly not as good as other people. It kills courage and confidence. It justifies appeasing evil on the grounds “they must know better.” It stops you from growing.

But a deep self-understanding of yourself is critical to success. Self-understanding consists of clear-headedness about your own knowledge, motivation, and skill. That includes knowing both the areas in which you have knowledge and those about which you don’t. It includes knowing both the activities for which you have skill and those for which you wish you had skill. And it includes knowing both your values and any old baggage that gets in the way of pursuing them.

In short, you need to be 100% realistic about your current abilities. That is not humility, that is realism.

The big problem with humility is that it focuses you too much on your current limitations. If you want to grow, you will need to learn new things, sort out past mistakes, develop new strengths, automatize existing skills, reprioritize your values, and de-automatize old baggage.

That is true for everybody. Growth is not a spectator sport. They say, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Whenever you set a goal that you have not achieved before, you will need to learn new things, resolve new conflicts, and get better at tasks you never thought were important before. Growth always results in significant changes to your psychology.

And it ain’t always fun. If you thought you could achieve a goal relatively easily, and then you run into a real limit on your knowledge, motivation, or skill, you will be discouraged, at least temporarily.

What you need in those situations is the confidence that if you need more knowledge, or stronger values, or automatized skill in order to achieve some goal, you can and will develop that. It will take work, but if the goal is important, that’s good enough. You will do it.

And that attitude is an attitude of pride, not humility.

Do you need to be obsessed to be great at what you do?

I’ve heard the people who are great at what they do are “obsessed.” I’m thinking of the Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Michael Jordan kind of people.

What does it mean to be obsessed?

This is a great example of how the general public uses psychological terms imprecisely. Musk, Jobs, and Jordan were passionate and showed great determination and concentration. These are all good things, essentially rational.

To be obsessed is by definition to be fixated on something in an unhealthy way. You fixate on it out of fear because if you don’t pay attention to it, you believe something terrible will happen.

Keating describes Roark as “…a maniac on the subject of architecture. It seems to mean so damn much to him that he’s lost all human perspective.”

Keating has a warped view of Roark. Roark is not a maniac. A maniac is literally insane.

I remember being this way as a teenager learning to play my instrument. As I got older I realized I was obsessed with becoming a famous musician, because I equated a huge audience of admiring fans with undeniable proof that I’m worthy and deserving and lovable and okay.

However, I distinctly remember moments throughout my life when I’ve fallen in love with the process of mastering my craft just for the sake of the process. I remember it not mattering at all if I found an audience because I enjoyed the process of growing my abilities and writing my songs. Those moments felt clean and like, “Ah! This is what life is all about.”


The problem with the “obsession” earlier was not the passion for the musical instrument, but the secondhanded varnish glossed over it. That’s what made it a true obsession — because something terrible would happen if you didn’t succeed. (You would conclude you were not worthy and lovable, which would be totally illogical, as it has nothing to do with your virtuosity!)

This is what happens to everyone when they mistakenly treat a real, deep value as if it were their top value.

Every person’s top value needs to be himself — as a whole, integrated, rational being, able to face the world. This is rational egoism, and it is a prerequisite for becoming happy. You will not find this principle in any other moral code. So it is very understandable that many people make mistakes like this.

The way to success

When I read The Fountainhead for the first time last year, I saw in Roark the same clean love of the craft that I had fleetingly experienced as a young musician.

I want to rekindle that “maniacal” love of my instrument and that voracious hunger I had as a kid to create and grow. I want to be obsessed again but with first-handed and rational motives. How do I do that?

I love helping people create or regain their passion for firsthand values. Almost everything in the Thinking Lab is relevant to this!

But here’s the short version:

For one thing, use the right words. The wrong words misidentify the causal steps to success. They make it harder to figure out the way forward. You do not want to be maniacal or obsessed. You want to be passionate. Focused. Determined. Fascinated. Confident. Proud.

Fortunately, you don’t need to know all of the right words or have an integrated philosophy to move forward. The general method I recommend is the rational goal-setting process I mentioned before. The way you strengthen the pull of firsthand values, weaken the pull of mistaken values, and disintegrate old baggage is to set a rational goal and pursue it with all of your might by a rational process. I had to figure this out the hard way, but you can get help with this process with my coaching in the Launch program.

Achieving ambitious goals takes more than lifting your finger to start a chain reaction or just putting time on task. It always takes transforming yourself into the person who has the ideal knowledge, values, and skills for the job. And that requires — not patience, humility, and obsessiveness — but focused effort, pride, and a deeply meaningful rational goal.

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