Successful individuals are often described as “relentless” in their pursuit of victory, completion of a difficult task, or dedication to an effort. I have historically viewed a relentless person as one that has strong positive character traits, but I think it is possible to take relentlessness too far. The dictionary definition of relentlessness is “…unyieldingly severe, strict, merciless, rigid, or harsh.” So, is relentlessness good or can it be harmful? When does relentless become reckless? Let’s explore this…
I have had the occasion to watch hummingbirds visit a feeder at my home. Last year was a banner year for hummingbirds judging by their numbers. Anyway, our feeder has four slots where birds can hover and drink a sugary liquid. They can also visit flowers nearby. I would term the hummingbirds as relentless in their pursuit of food. They spend nearly all day coming to the feeder or flowers and seem to have few other interests. They have some rests from these efforts, but they are few and they don’t last long. Perhaps, hummingbirds must be relentless in order to survive. Despite this, hummingbirds exhibit a sense of caution. When feeding, they are constantly alert for danger and quickly flee when spooked.
There are also humans that have this same “relentlessness” in their pursuits. Some think of their work or career pursuits 24/7. I recently heard of one CEO of a start-up company that intentionally sent texts or email messages to applicants at odd hours (such as 9pm on a Saturday night or 11am on a Sunday morning) to test their responsiveness. If they failed to respond within three hours, they “did not fit the culture” desired by the CEO. When relentlessness goes too far, it becomes an obsession or an addiction… it becomes reckless. And, when that occurs, the individual’s life gets out-of-balance.
So, is “relentlessness” a good or bad trait? I think, like so many other things, that anything we do to the extent that it harms other areas of our life is bad. When we pursue our career to the detriment of our family, we have gone too far and recklessly endanger our relationships. Going too far is missing most of the key life events of our children, neglecting our spouse, or failing to nurture other relationships. However, being relentless (or undeterred) in completing a specific task is probably a good thing. For example, if you have a critical assignment that must be completed on schedule, it pays to be relentless in completing the task on time.
There are other examples of relentlessness that are admirable. Most of us have heard of or know individuals that have suffered a severe health crisis, yet were relentless to overcome the adversity they experienced. So, in many ways, being relentless to accomplish a specific task is a good thing. However, being described as a relentless person (that is, one that pursues something “in an unyieldingly severe, strict, merciless, rigid, or harsh” manner) with no regard for balance is probably a negative thing.
Here are a few character attributes that we should strive to exhibit in our lives that communicate in the same way as relentlessness:
- Persistent – ability to stick to a task until it is completed, even in the face of failure
- Diligent – can be relied upon to complete assignments in a high-quality manner
- Reliable – true to their word
- Dedicated – committed
- Focused – aligned with the target at hand
We should pursue “appropriate and timely” relentlessness. We should also be aware that even the hummingbird takes a break. Relentlessness must be used only for important tasks or efforts. It is difficult to sustain indefinitely.
Crossing the line of relentlessness to recklessness is a small step. When we do, we become:
- Careless – sloppy, ignoring appropriate risk
- Thoughtless – lost focus on the target or goal
- Impetuous – petty and wasting time on unimportant tasks
- Impulsive – jumping to conclusions or irrational actions
- Irresponsible – failing to fulfill basic or expected responsibilities
- Foolhardy – making unforced errors
Bottom line… we should be relentless to accomplish needed tasks when they are important, meaningful, and impactful to ourselves or others. However, exercise the caution of the hummingbird… be alert. Don’t cross the line from relentless to reckless.