“You are destined for greatness. Believe in yourself and go for it.”
This should be an inspirational and empowering belief. That’s why you’ll see it plastered around the internet as a motivational quote.
Go for it. Not only can you do it, but you are meant to do it.
At face value, it sounds healthy, but it can be a recipe for hustle culture. It is true that we are often our own worst enemies. We let negative self-talk become a barrier to moving forward. It is energizing then, to find something reinforcing the idea we most definitely will succeed.
Instead of overcoming self-limiting beliefs, believing you are destined for greatness may be the most self-limiting belief you can have.
What is our potential? What does that success look like? These are important questions that are not answered, so we are left to create our own definitions. Perhaps I feel that I have the potential to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and I won’t rest until I achieve it.
Maybe I have a friend, who I think is less talented than me, that started a multi-million dollar business. In my head, this means I have the potential to do better, and now will not rest until I do better.
Feeling destined for greatness becomes just another way of thinking that you deserve this image of success you have painted in your head. We tell ourselves that our hard work must pay off, and we will get to where we want to go.
This forms the foundation for hustle culture. It doesn’t stop there though.
If I believe I am destined for greatness, I will act accordingly. When presented with an ethical gray area, I may be more tempted to act slightly unethically in order to attain that success I wanted. It becomes easier to self-rationalize playing politics to get ahead and hurting others in the process. It makes it easier to justify sacrificing time with family to spend more time on work emails every night. In other words, it makes someone selfish.
Ryan Holiday offers up this definition of ego,
“It’s not confidence—which is properly defined as evidence of our strengths and abilities. Ego is something different, something less earned, a kind of unhealthy belief in our own importance. … It’s the voice whispering in our ear that we’re better than other people, that our needs matter more, that the rules don’t apply to someone as exceptional as we are. It’s the sense that we are special and therefore need this success or that piece of recognition to prove it (or rather, we deserve it because well, because). It’s the belief that everyone else is watching us, that we’re destined for greatness.”
In Islamic literature, we are familiar with the idea of jihad-al-nafs, which is defined by Abu Aaliyah Surkheel as,
“… the personal struggle against one’s nafs; the lower self or ego, wherein a person strives to overcome temptations, carnal desires and the devil’s whisperings; striving also to internalize the Islamic teachings through acts of worship and devotion: like prayer, fasting, dhikr and almsgiving.”
Abu Aaliyah further continues, commenting on the concept of the nafs al-ammārah bi’l-sū’ (soul that constantly incites to evil),
“This unweaned soul is the abode of a multitude of incessant cravings and desires: be it for wealth, fame, power, physical gratification, exploitation of others – in short, anything that deflects one away from Allah and towards the lower, bestial possibilities of the human condition.”
We are adept at spotting this in others. In many cases, particularly when it comes to money or business/career status, we can spot the undue sense of entitlement from a mile away. We are not as good at diagnosing it in ourselves. One way our soul incites us to these same evils is by masking the undue entitlement with softer, more positive feelings such as deserving something or earning it through merit.
Believing we are destined for greatness fosters an unhealthy belief in our own importance and cultivates self-centered ambition.
In a professional environment, this manifests itself in a number of ways. A person will
- Not want to invest time in learning a tool or skill that does not serve the picture of success they have in their head.
- Have unrealistic expectations of what kind of role or position they deserve to be in.
- Lack self-awareness to see how they measure up against their peers.
- Not sacrifice for the sake of team or organizational success.
- Find it difficult to be content, find meaning, or find purpose in their work if they don’t “like” what they are doing.
- Not be engaged in their work.
- Not be able to form strong relationships or network with others.
- Constantly look for validation.
- Deliver work that is subpar or obviously used shortcuts.
- Seek credit and over-inflate their own contributions.
- Be unable to identify opportunities.
- Have difficulty finding good mentors.
- Not be receptive to good advice from others.
- Garner a reputation as being difficult to work with, or in some cases even toxic.
It is easy to read this list and immediately think of someone we know that fits this description. It is difficult to realize we might be doing the same things under the positive facade of working hard to be successful.
To combat the ego means reframing our ideas of success. From a mindset point of view, it means focusing more on the akhirah aspect of success. Practically, it means shifting to a focus on process instead of outcomes. In doing so, we move away from the ego’s obsession with personal glory and embrace a more profound understanding of ego death, which allows us to grow and find fulfillment beyond mere material accomplishments.
Thinking in terms of “what can I do today to get better” shapes your actions drastically differently from thinking in terms of “how do I achieve X”. Focusing on finding purpose in your work goes much farther than only wanting to do what you are passionate about.
At the root, you have to deprogram the idea of deserving something.
If any human were to have the right of saying they deserved something, we might say it is the Prophet (s) deserving to go to Jannah. And yet, we find him saying this instead:
“Follow the right course, be devoted, and give glad tidings. Verily, none of you will enter Paradise by his deeds alone.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet said, “Not even me, unless Allah grants me His mercy. Know that the most beloved deed to Allah is that which is done regularly, even if it is small”(Bukhari and Muslim)
The last two statements of this hadith offer a profoundly simple solution to the complex battle against our egos.
The first is to acknowledge our station in front of Allah (swt). He provides and sustains, but he does not owe us anything.
The second is to stay process-focused on your work. To make it into Jannah is a gargantuan achievement. In Silicon Valley speak, entering paradise would be the ultimate BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) – a reward worth infinitely more than all the riches of this world combined. And yet, the prescription for it is a reminder that the most beloved deeds to Allah are those that are small and consistent.
It shifts our mindset from being outcome-focused to being process-focused. It takes us from a hustle culture mindset to a barakah culture mindset.
Recalling the earlier example of a professional environment, this would look like
- Adopting the mindset of a student who is constantly learning
- Consistently delivering results, even when you do not feel like it
- Garnering a reputation for being diligent and responsible
- Able to receive critical feedback as a means of improvement instead of a personal attack
- Looking for ways to develop skills and add value to others
- Leading from a place of responsibility
- Strong ability to adapt to changing situations and circumstances
- Finding ways to give credit to and uplift others
Breaking free from the idea that we are destined to achieve something is liberating. The moment I forget about the outcome, the less I worry and stress about it. It frees us from the shackles of unrealistic expectations, allows us to focus on doing the work we need to do to get better, and relegates the results of that work to Allah (swt).
The barakah, of course, is that those results Allah (swt) gives us are often far more than we hoped for or deserved.
I’m excited to partner with The Productive Muslim Company to launch the Careers Masterclass. A 5-week masterclass to learn practical tools and guidance to get ahead in your career without sacrificing your deen. Learn more at https://productivemuslim.com/careers/