Hi friends, happy March! Is it sad to say that the highlight of February for me was the Winter Olympics? Ok, there were a lot of other lovely aspects of this past month, but getting a reprieve from regular mind-numbing TV programming has been a treat over the last 2 weeks…. and insightful in ways I hadn’t expected.
I think the Olympics are so fun because we all love the chase for the gold – whether it’s a champion defending his/her title or the underdog coming out of nowhere to prove themselves, we can all get behind a big dramatic win story. Of course, for every winner there are also countless athletes who don’t make the podium, and that’s heartbreaking to watch. You know what’s weird, though? This year I found myself feeling just as bad for the athletes who DID win the gold.
Let me explain.
Towards the beginning of the Olympic coverage, they aired an interview with Mikaela Shiffrin, the youngest athlete to ever win an Olympic gold in the slalom and a favorite to rack up many more medals in Pyeongchang. During her chat, Mikaela confessed that the pressure she felt was so enormous that she was used to living with stomach pains and high levels of anxiety. Maybe I’m projecting here, but she also sounded joyless as she talked about her “passion”, and her determination to win seemed to be driven by fear of letting people down instead of kicking ass for the love of the sport. It was sad for me to see this lovely girl whose list of accomplishments is already longer than a CVS receipt never crack a smile. Ever.
Some people say that if you’re not first, you’re last. After watching these games, I disagree. Maybe if you’re not first, you’re free.
Winning can easily become an addiction, and like any other drug, the more you win the shorter the high and the more intense the need to keep.on.winning. What was once a passion becomes a prison. I felt bad for the athletes that won gold because I just know that medal will weigh heavily on their shoulders for the next 4 years, pushing them to work harder and harder to defend their title, slowly replacing the joy they used to feel in their sport with pressure, anxiety, and fear of failure. Not 5 minutes after Mikaela had won her first Gold medal in 2014, she was on national TV saying she expected to win 5 more in the next Olympics, and I’m sure she’s already dreaming of “redemption” in 2022. Being in it, whatever it is, only for the win robs us of the experience that makes winning worthwhile, and attaching our identity and self-worth to our performance is a one-way ticket to unhappiness.
Since most of us are not Olympic athletes (and if you are, please let me know so I can brag that Olympians read my newsletter!) I’ll give you an example that might hit closer to home. When I worked at ExxonMobil, I became obsessed with being the best. I didn’t particularly like my job, but I pushed and pushed myself just so that I could be on top come Rating & Ranking time. Like a racehorse with blinders on, I took off on my corporate career with the goal of climbing the ladder, never stopping to consider if it would even lead to a place I liked. Being the best was the point. When I felt unfulfilled by my accomplishments at work, I enrolled in a part-time MBA program at Georgetown University, and when that didn’t seem to justify my existence, I decided to train for a half-marathon (even though I hate running.) And so on and so forth, all work and no play, always chasing the ever-moving target of perfection.
Looking back now, I can see that what I was truly after at that time in my life was validation, purpose, acceptance, and love. And this is where so many of us go wrong: believing that winning = validation, purpose, acceptance, love. The truth is, there is no amount of winning that can fill the void of feeling like you aren’t enough, and nothing more freeing than realizing that you already are.
We live in a culture obsessed with rankings and comparisons, titles and fame. From the day we arrive on planet Earth, we are measured, tested, and compared. If we feel like we’re always running and pushing and go-go-going, it’s because our lives have become little more than a race to the top…a top that has been scientifically proven not to live up to its expectations (think about all the superstars that end up depressed or worse after peaking). The truth is, playing to win keeps us small. It keeps us from trying new things, afraid of being fully ourselves, and unable to savor the beauty that’s right in front of us…. all things which would lead to the happiness we seek. Working to win at ExxonMobil kept me in a career I did not find fulfilling, on a path that was taking me farther and farther away from the life I wanted. It was only when a horrible boss of mine ranked me poorly that I was forced to reconsider what I was doing with my life. (And as I write this from the studio desk overlooking the cozy little yoga nook I get to call mine, I can almost bring myself to say “thanks” to that a-hole:)
Ok, so let’s circle back to the Olympic athletes. I really do admire the hard work and dedication it takes to compete at that level, and I’m sure that for many athletes, getting to practice their passion everyday and working towards a dream is in fact very fulfilling. Being amazing at something and working hard towards a goal is not a bad thing. It only gets muddy when we lack the self-awareness to understand that what we do is not who we are, that our ranking among others is not a reflection of our worth, and that it’s the experience in and of itself that makes us rich, not the gold.
When we focus on being the BEST, we don’t do our best at BEING. And that my friends, is a true loss.