Why “whatever it takes” is a flawed strategy

Common: Passionate ignorance disguised as commitment

Uncommon: After centuries of use, someone thought it necessary to improve upon the cannon. While still effective, there was a problem. Once in flight, the cannonball could not be intentionally stopped or redirected.

Then came the smart missile… it could adjust to conditions, respond to new information, and yes, could even abort the mission altogether. Given the two options, the logical strategy is that of the smart missile.

But this is not the approach many people choose when creating their lives. They take the form of the cannonball, relying on established mass, momentum, and brute force to take them to their destination. The cannonball can plow through many barriers with impressive resolve. This is very similar to the ‘whatever it takes’ method – a display of dogged tenacity towards a predetermined target.

But in life, our targets (end goals) rarely sit in one place waiting to connect with a unidirectional object (you, the pursuer).

Smart or stubborn?

Yes, I believe that consistent success must be earned with persistence and diligence. However, there are both smart ways (smart missiles) and stubborn ways (cannonballs) to direct or aim effort to this end. And the wrong allocations can lead to burnout, pessimism, and a myriad of other nasty derivatives.

How do I know? I’ve been the cannonball. I’ve also seen many of my clients go through the same process before approaching me for feedback. But not surprisingly, most people are taken aback when I tell them that tireless commitment is a fool’s strategy.  (Warning: To a Type A personality this is akin to telling a 6 year old that Santa doesn’t exist.)

So, you too may be questioning such a bold hypothesis. But my explanation as to why this ‘whatever it takes,’ get-out-of-my-way mentality is a flawed strategy is actually quite simple: It severs the relationship between outcome and purpose. In the absence of the latter, tireless commitment becomes mindless action.

In the name of ‘completing our objective head on’ our eyes roll back, our mind tunes out, and we run, and run, and run. We pride ourselves on making the decision not to let anything get between ourselves and the outcome.

But therein lies the dangerously oversimplified equation of success… the assumption that what lies between point and A and point B is immaterial, irrelevant, and only conquered through audacious action.

Driven by this mindset, we remove the impartial perspective needed to discern the difference between ignorant opinions and constructive feedback. I smell danger.


The danger zone

Here are some common casualties of the ‘whatever it takes’ strategy:

  • The student who invests hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours to complete her college degree because the major once had personal appeal in high school.
  • The ambitious professional who, in a frenzied effort to ‘climb the ladder,’ ends up sacrificing his social life, his health, and worst of all, his values.
  • The entrepreneur who continues to invest in R&D to perfect a product that becomes so expensive to produce the market is not willing to pay a price that covers the cost of production.
  • The competitive gamer who, determined to set a new high score, defers sleep and exercise.
  • The athlete who, determined to crush the competition, blows out her knee.
  • The business that continues to throw dollars into advertising a product that the market does not want.
  • The networker who, in wanting to meet a notable contact, ruins his reputation by beating down doors with obsessive force.

Why do such heartbreaking events happen? Because anything less than the original goal, defined in its initial terms, is viewed as failure, so we push beyond what is sensible assuming that every sacrifice is yardage gained. At some point along the way the outcome becomes more important than the purpose, which is all too often the result of a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to achieving.

In fact, if worded differently, ‘whatever it takes’ also means ‘at whatever costs.’ Needless to say, it’s a short-term plan.

The smart missile

An intelligent achiever, on the other hand, understands that a great goal does not merely define the outcome; it explains why such a goal is important to begin with. Without this supplementary ‘why’ it’s far too easy to doggedly head in a non-constructive direction and be completely unaware of it.

Yes, there are times when aborting the initial mission to redirect focus and energy is, in fact, the best and boldest decision… because starting something is not grounds for finishing it. Because larger sacrifices don’t always lead to larger upsides. And because more effort does not guarantee more reward.

I’m not condoning fractional commitments and I don’t believe in pursuing goals with partial efforts. If you’re not prepared to try or make certain sacrifices, then be prepared to face an equal number of frustrating issues of a different form. But take heed:

There is a difference between giving a 100% effort and adopting the ‘whatever it takes’ mentality. The former demonstrates patience, timing, respect, and an acute awareness of one’s journey, whereas the latter, by definition, disregards it.

The cannonball’s ‘full speed ahead’ approach is powerful, but it’s no longer the medieval era where brute force prevails. Today, life moves fast and selecting our trajectory once upon launch is a recipe for disaster. We must be strategic, adaptive, and willing to set our sights on the purpose, not just the end target.

Stay uncommon,

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