Are you one of the never satisfied strivers?
The type of person who, despite having some obvious successes in life--a solid career, a modicum of financial security, the respect of your peers--just never feels like you've quite made it?
Are you always a little worried you could be accomplishing more?
If so, you probably feel kind of crummy sometimes compared to your more easily contented competitors, but according to new research out of Stanford, all your ambition has a serious upside (hat tip to Science of Us for the pointer).
Perpetually feeling like you're a bit unsuccessful, it turns out, is a pretty good sign you're going to go on to achieve even greater things.
Why feeling unsuccessful isn't always a bad thing
For the research, Stanford marketing professor Szu-chi Huang and colleagues asked 136 participants to play a game for money that involved memorizing and then recalling lists of colors. They tracked not only the players' performance but also how difficult they judged the competition to be and how sure they were of their success at each stage of play.
They found that complacency--a.k.a. feeling like you're already a success--spelled doom for participants later in the game. A larger follow-up study involving a charity book drive confirmed the effect. If you feel like you've made it, you're far more likely to suffer a severe dip in motivation and lose the race in the last miles.
"People who are leading underestimate the effort they need to invest, hence they relax prematurely," Huang comments, summing up the findings.
Or, to put it even more bluntly: dissatisfaction isn't at all pleasant, but it does keep you hungry and driving towards success. Feeling unsuccessful has its uses.
How to stay hungry without driving yourself insane
That said, constantly beating yourself up about your shortcomings and obsessively comparing yourself to others is no way to live. So how can you put these insights to use without putting a serious damper on your mental well-being?
The key, according to the Stanford write-up of the research, is to keep your eye not on your position vis-à-vis other people (if you do that, your motivation is likely to fall as soon as you pull ahead), but instead to focus on your own internal high standards by asking yourself if you're performing with as much dedication and effort as you did previously, for example. That way, you can avoid complacency and, hopefully, also the misery of constantly keeping up with the Joneses.