A central striving shapes our well-being
A Harvard study reveals what truly matters in crafting a meaningful life
The Reset is a high achiever’s guide to designing a meaningful life. If you like this post, would you mind sharing with other high achievers you know? 🙏
Why would someone pay $52,000 a year to attend Harvard?
Amidst high rates of college graduate unemployment and under-employment, a diploma no longer guarantees socioeconomic wealth. To increase our chances, we can’t just have any degree; we need to have a prestigious one, one that affords us the connections and clout to make it in an increasingly competitive job market. The price tag— applicants and their families believe— is a small amount to pay for the desired outcome: a good life.
But is it a worthy investment? Does a top-notch degree enable a fulfilling life? Or does it create a higher anxiety, less satisfactory existence?
The relationship between traditional success and well-being
In the summer of 1964, Harvard College— at the time an all-male school— welcomed its incoming class of freshmen. The school recruited 49 students to participate in a longitudinal study of human development. Throughout these men’s undergraduate life, they met frequently with Harvard’s research team who documented how the years unfolded.
40 years later, the men had gone from Harvard seniors entering the working world to near-retirees with ripened lives. They were now late into their careers; many had grown their families. Did going to a top-notch school have its intended consequence?
Michael B. Kaufman, an interdisciplinary psychologist, sought out to uncover the verdict. He got in touch with 40 of the 50 original men, traveled to their homes, and conducted in-depth interviews (sometimes 10+ hours worth) exploring two basic questions:
What are the most important experiences I’ve had?
How do I feel about them and my life overall?
The result was a thorough and fascinating collection of life stories and new models for looking at human development. Kaufman opened the book of each man’s story: the triumphs, disappointments, heartbreaks, unexpected shifts, and tender moments. He then stepped back and looked across this constellation of humans, all of whom were once in the top fraction of the top 1% of academic achievement.
The conclusion? A diverse array of lives lived. The men were all over the map in terms of well-being. Some had a darkened view of life and felt, in their sixties, that they had never measured up to their goals. Others lived deeply satisfying and bright lives surrounded by strong relationships. It seemed that a Harvard education neither guaranteed a fruitful life nor doomed it.
So what did determine the quality of each person’s life, whether they occupied it in fulfillment or despair? It came down to their central striving.
Types of strivings
A central striving is the goal underlying our life. Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s the lens through which we make decisions, interpret events, and evolve our identities.
Kaufman identified two types of central strivings:
The first is self repair. In his sample, Kaufman describes a Harvard student who came from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background and worked hard to ascend the income ladder. When he stumbled to get good grades and secure a high-paying job, he believed that he was accepted to Harvard as a “token disadvantaged student” and saw his life as a sequence of failed possibilities.
Another participant had a wealthy father at the top of his field. He spent his time at Harvard and his subsequent career striving to match his father’s success and gain his approval. He founded a company early in his career and became a multi-millionaire. Despite his financial security, he lived in constant fear of larger, better-funded competitors squashing his business. Worst case scenarios circled his mind, and his success felt fragile. A single misstep could cause their cash flow to crumble, along with the prospect of measuring up to his father.
In both examples, the men were motivated to fix what they perceived to be deficiencies. They constructed their lives to repair what was broken.
While self repair goals can generate astounding career success, they don’t lead to fulfillment. Why?
“The pursuit of self-repair takes precedence over consequence over other enjoyments or gratifications until the problem is fixed. The long-term consequence of a self-repair goal is that it suppresses well-being (unless the goal is attained, which is rare in the sample). It holds the participant in a long-term quest in which he is attuned to the deficiencies in himself and his experiences. It creates strife with other desires the person has.”
— Michael B. Kaufman
When we are motivated chiefly by a belief that we are not right, or our world is not right, we cannot find peace. We adopt a “fix it” mindset and are quick to judge ourselves and others, interpreting failure as a threat to our fragile identities.
Kaufman further segments self-repair into two sub-types: self augmentation and self protection. Under the former, we seek social validation like academic excellence, career achievement, and building an esteemed network. In the latter, we become deeply averse to rejection or failure; we withdraw from taking risks and pursuing opportunities.
Second, he identifies positive goals. (Note: Kaufman doesn’t formalize a name for this type of striving, so I’ll refer to it as “positive” for this post.)
A positive life goal represents a commitment to live one’s values. For example, one participant grew up in a rural household and internalized his father’s love of nature and the comfort of a loving nuclear family. As an adult, he made it a priority (even at the expense of his career) to preserve the family life he valued and his role as a father and partner.
Our central striving impacts not only the decisions we make but also how our minds interpret events. Those with self repair goals are more likely to view criticism, mistakes, pitfalls, and failures as further invalidation of their adequacy or the adequacy of their lives.
Those with positive strivings are more willing to accept challenges as part of life’s ebb and flow and use them as opportunities to strengthen what matters.
While both types of participants experienced difficulty in their lives— getting laid off, marital challenges, illness—those with positive goals did not view these events as a core threat to their significance or ego.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
In subtle ways, our central striving shapes our thoughts, which then determine our destiny: the extent to which our lives are well-lived.
How our strivings shift
Central strivings are shaped in childhood and tend to stay with us through adolescence and adulthood. A change in striving, however, is possible. Kaufman’s study identified examples of adults shifting to darker or brighter goals throughout their lives.
He identified a core pattern of change:
First, the subject experiences internal distancing from the original striving
Second, they experience external changes— either gradually or via a sudden shock to their environment
Next, they adapt their way of being and receives feedback from their new environment
Finally, they reach a new equilibrium in well-being
An example of how change played out in one participant’s life: A man entered Harvard pressured to one day work in the same field as his father. Throughout college, his father pressured him to pursue the extracurricular activities and internships that would one day enable success in his field. The Harvard student did end up pursuing this field after graduating but internally distanced from it, acknowledging that the job sufficed for now but wasn’t motivating.
His life suddenly pivoted with the death of a close relative. The man realized his pattern of dissatisfaction and reoriented his life, entering a lower-paying service role in which he was able to help others. He received positive feedback from his co-workers and community, which encouraged him to deepen investment in this new career direction. He lived a deeply gratifying life knowing that his contributions mattered.
What am I striving for?
Growing up in the suburbs, I wanted nothing more than to attend an Ivy League college.
I immigrated to America when I was almost four years old. Everyday, I carried to school a lunchbox and the definitive knowledge that I was an outsider. I wore the wrong clothes, ate the wrong things, and lacked the experiences my classmates chattered about — carving a turkey at Thanksgiving, going to a beach house, visiting Disney World, learning to ski. In the afternoons, I hopped off the school bus with a lengthy backlog of questions about American life that my parents couldn’t answer.
Growing an up outsider embedded in me a desire to prove that I belong. To mend gaps in my eloquence as an American. To repair the sacrifices my parents made to pursue a better life for me. Studying for the SAT was needle and thread.
Now as an adult, I’m experiencing a gradual but undeniable shift in my central striving.
My self-repair goals came from my immigrant roots. My higher, more positive strivings are born from those same roots. They bloom from my mom’s commitment to a freer, more peaceful, and more joyful life in the United States than we had in China. One in which my individuality and sensitivity could grow, undisturbed, like a wild garden. One in which I could discover life in its fullest palette of colors.
The poet May Sarton writes:
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces
Reflection: What is your central striving? What would it take to become yourself?
Love and health,