A term coined by human-performance researcher and executive coach Brad Stulberg, author of The Practice of Groundedness, heroic individualism is “an ongoing game of oneupmanship against yourself and others, where, regardless of how far you make it, the goalpost is always 10 yards down the field, so it's never enough,” he says. That mindset can quickly become self-sabotaging, leading you to strive for constant productivity at the expense of your present-day happiness and well-being.
What does heroic individualism look like in practice?
Stulberg came up with the phrase "heroic individualism" and the concept underlying it after seeing his executive-coaching clients and friends repeatedly achieve major goals but fail to acknowledge or appreciate them. He even recognized a similar tendency in himself, which led him to think more deeply about where the line falls between working hard with a healthy level of ambition and striving so relentlessly that you leave yourself unfulfilled in the process.
The warning signs that he'd fallen into the latter camp were clear when he assessed his mindset. “I felt like there was something that wasn't burnout, and it wasn't clinical anxiety or clinical depression, but it was more like this low-level chronic anxiety, a constant feeling of being rushed or like you’re never enough, and it’s just go, go, go at hyper-speed,” he says.
In himself and the other heroic individualists he identified, Stulberg also noticed the tendency to think, "If I just achieve the next goal [or milestone, or promotion], I'll finally be fulfilled"—but even then, you're only momentarily satisfied before you latch onto the next thing, he adds. “Overall, it leaves us feeling very frantic and frenetic.”
Even so, you may not realize that this heroic individualism is problematic if you're deep in it. Thanks to hustle culture and the high value that our society places on productivity, there's a perception that suffering and grinding alone in service of accomplishing a goal is always a good thing worthy of praise when really it has the potential to be damaging.
“Heroic individualism is an optimizing-at-all-costs mentality.” —Brad Stulberg, human-performance researcher and executive coach
“There's this notion that you become a martyr by doing this, as if you’re a superhero,” says Stulberg, referencing the heroic part of the phrase. “It's an optimizing-at-all-costs mentality.” The individualism then comes into play because, if you’re going to strive for such relentless self-optimization, “then you don't really have time to develop relationships, even though we know it's actually our relationships that most deeply fulfill us,” he says.
How heroic individualism can lead to stress and a lack of fulfillment
Similar to the experience of perfectionism, heroic individualism has the effect of putting success always just out of reach. With perfectionism, you're constantly striving toward a literally un-reachable goal (aka perfection), whereas with heroic individualism, you're constantly replacing an achieved goal with another new goal, such that you're also never really at the finish line.
Again, that's not to say that maintaining a consistent sense of ambition and something to work toward is a bad thing; it's just that when you're always setting new goals for success, you'll find it tougher and tougher to recognize what you've already achieved. And when you can't acknowledge those successes along the way, it's easy to feel unworthy—which just reinforces the need to continue striving toward the next goal and the goal after that. The result is an endless cycle where you're always stressed-out about achieving something, and yet, you're never content once you actually achieve it.
The best way to combat this is to reorient success around the act of striving and the journey to a goal, rather than the destination. “If even 51 percent of your joy and fulfillment comes from the process, and the other 49 percent is from the achievement, you’re in good shape,” says Stulberg. The point is to make sure the first category weighs more heavily than the second; with heroic individualism, the balance is skewed in the opposite direction, he says, with at least 90 percent of your satisfaction being placed on the achievement itself and only about 10 percent on the process of getting there.
To shift that balance, Stulberg suggests practicing groundedness, which he breaks into six steps below.
6 steps to mitigate heroic individualism through groundedness
1. Accept your situation
This is about taking stock of what is actually happening in your life: Are there clear goals you've achieved or failed to achieve? How have others acknowledged your wins or struggles? Understanding your current reality doesn't mean you have to be satisfied with it, says Stulberg. But slowing down to take stock is the only way to appreciate how far you've come and press pause on the tendency to just work, work, work toward the next thing, he says.
2. Focus on owning your attention
Part of getting grounded and resisting the pull of constant productivity is turning your focus onto yourself. This involves taking up behaviors that have no particular external goal and are just meant to be soothing or enjoying—for instance, a new hobby or self-care practice—and setting healthy boundaries to protect your ability to engage in them.
For example, if you’re going to meditate to relax instead of scrolling through emails in the evening, make sure that your coworkers know your sign-off time, and place your phone out of arm's reach so that you're less likely to be pulled away from your meditation by pings or dings.
3. Know that patience is key to success
If you're stuck in the cycle of heroic individualism, it can feel like working more and working faster is always better. But, as the old adage goes, slow and steady wins the race—which means, you're actually more likely to achieve goals by embracing the process, however long it might take, than by racing ahead with frantic, frenzied productivity.
“This is really about zooming out and playing the long game,” says Stulberg. “We get so caught up in acute, myopic thinking that we struggle to take that long view—but when we do, we give ourselves permission to behave in a way that’s more sustainable.”
4. Embrace vulnerability
In the effort to feel, again, like you're always making strides toward the next bigger and better goal, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you're a human—with flaws. While it may seem more efficient to charge forward as if you were a machine without pausing to address your natural vulnerabilities, or to act as if you are invincible, it's not emotionally healthy or sustainable to do so, says Stulberg. It's only by embracing your vulnerability that you can be comfortable in your own skin, as you are.
5. Build deep community
Part of the reason why it's so essential to embrace your natural vulnerability, per the tip above, is that it allows you to connect deeply with others. And forming these supportive relationships—divorced from any achievements—is a direct antidote to heroic individualism, says Stulberg: It's tough to fall into the individualist trap if you're in deep community with others.
He adds that maintaining these kinds of relationships is what will ultimately help you feel fulfilled (in the way that no amount of striving after individual goals ever can). None of us are meant to figure it all out alone in this life—and we actually live longer when we can lean on the people around us.
6. Move your body
"Moving your body is one of the best ways to ground your mind," says Stulberg, who qualifies that you certainly don't have to be heroic about the form of movement you choose. If, for example, high-intensity workouts aren't your thing, bypass the CrossFit classes or the marathon-training for something like a daily walk around the block, he says.
By turning your attention to your physical body, you can interrupt the "I must be productive" mental feedback loop (at least for a little bit). Plus, there's ample research to show that the health benefits of physical activity extend to the mental and emotional realms.
Taken together, these steps can remove some of the pressure of achieving goal after goal, and help you find the balance between future-focused ambition and mindful presence. Perhaps no one sums it up better than Miley Cyrus: It really isn't about how fast you get there or what's waiting on the other side; it's (sing it with me) the cliiimb.
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