Updated: Jun 14
I loved my father's voice. So clear, so authoritative, so kind. When he would look at me with his gentle dark eyes that sparkled with love and call me a "winner" I would melt. All I wanted was to make him proud and if he thought I was a winner, nothing else mattered. But it also created in me a way of viewing the world as one of winners and losers and set the stage for a lifetime of striving to get to the top. I'm in good company. We live in a competitive society where it’s all about winning or losing.
From a very young age, we are conditioned to try to excel by doing better than the next child, getting better grades, going to better colleges, getting better jobs, and marrying better people.
Comparing ourselves to others comes to us honestly-we’ve been bathed in it since birth.
We love games where there is a clear winner and an even clearer loser.
We love watching people rise to celebrity status almost as much as we love watching them fall from grace.
This you win-I lose obsession is at the core of patriarchal thinking.
But does the winner really take it all?
Is a life devoted to striving to be the best at all costs one of contentment and peace?
This has been a huge part of my personal healing journey; learning to slow down and let go of the false belief that unless I am hugely successful (on the outside) I have somehow failed at the game of life. Ironically, my dad, whose opinion mattered most to me, never thought of me as less of a winner when I struggled. That judgmental critical thinking was of my own doing. He did however believe in giving it "your best shot."
Hyper-achievers believe they must be the best at whatever they do and that they are worthy only if, and as long as, others think highly of their successes. They often take the position that if they can’t be outstanding at something, it’s not worth doing at all.
The limitations to this mindset are obvious.
First of all, any peace and happiness you may experience from striving are generally fleeting and short-lived.
Second, self-acceptance becomes conditioned on the next success, so you are never satisfied. I know this one well!
And finally, when you operate on automatic, always towards reaching some goal, you tend to lose touch with deeper feelings and ultimately feel disconnected from your true self.
Where better to learn lessons about winning and losing than from the Olympics?
While they certainly teach us that grit, determination, passion, and the promise of achievement can propel us forward, we also learn about the very real pitfalls that undermine the satisfaction of actually winning. When Simone Biles was asked to name the happiest moment of her illustrious career, she answered, "honestly, probably my time off." This is a fascinating comment from the most decorated gymnast in history who went on to teach the world the importance of taking care of one's mental health when she unexpectedly pulled out of the Olympics.
Even being the greatest in the world doesn’t guarantee ongoing contentment. “Hedonic adaption” is the term coined to express just that. Researchers have found that your happiness eventually tends to revert to a baseline level after a good (or bad) thing happens to you. In an article from The Atlantic, Cassie Mogliner Holmes, a UCLA professor explains that “Even something as amazing as getting a huge raise at work; as meeting the love of your life; or as winning a gold medal" is something we "get used to" and within a relatively short amount of time, return to our same baseline of happiness we had before the extraordinary event or win. We need to uncover for ourselves the truth about what exactly we are striving for. What is the measure of the success we desire? In the words of the Buddha, "true and lasting inner peace can never be found in external things" (Even if they are gold medals!) "It can only be found within. And then, once we find and nurture it ourselves, it radiates outward." In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo recalls the childhood game King of the Hill where kids would find a mound of dirt, the higher the better, and the goal was to stand alone on the top of the hill.
Once there. everyone else tried to throw you off, installing themselves as King of the Hill.
While many driven, competitive people would disagree with him, Nepo believes that: “Clearly the worst position of all is being King of the Hill. You are completely alone and paranoid, never able to trust anyone, constantly forced to spin and guard every direction. The hills may change from a job to a woman to a prized piece of real estate, but those on top can be so enslaved by guarding their position that they rarely enjoy the view.”
As we have seen, many who have made it to the summit of their profession would agree that the view is not as spectacular as one would have thought.
So, we need to make some inquiries into our need to be King of the Hill. How do we feel when we are pushing others off the position? How important is getting to the top for you? Are you clear about why? If you accomplish what you are reaching for, what will really change?
In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington shares how she began to ask these questions after her body gave out on her and she realized her wellbeing was seriously compromised.
She found herself lying in a pool of blood in her home office, having collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep.
“I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall, I had to ask myself, Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted?.. In terms of the traditional measure of success… I was very successful but I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success.. I knew something had to change. I could not go on that way..”
Are you relating to this tale of striving? Of pushing yourself so that there is no self left? Is getting to be the King of the Hill thrilling and satisfying or lonely and exhausting?
These are questions for you to ponder.
I certainly have and will continue to do so.
As I embark on this third segment of my life,
I am committed to staying connected to what matters most in my life; my family, my friends, my health, and my mission to serve others. I am learning not to measure success by money, power, or status but to pay close attention to what I am feeling and experiencing and be guided by my inner wisdom and intelligence. Of all the quotes about striving and success, I am most drawn to the simple wisdom of Albert Einstein who encourages us to "strive not to be a success but to be of value".
I’m even toying with the word “rest” and letting the concept wash over me from time to time, without choking on my own guilt. Rest, I need to learn, is not a bad word, not a state of laziness or indulgence.
I will always be a striver; I will also try to do the very best I can, go above and beyond, get better always, and reach for the gold. But I have listened carefully to the countless stories (including my own) about the ramifications of living to achieve an external measure of success that will never give us the inner satisfaction we seek.
Perhaps, by including in our life a bit of rest, we can all feel better; stronger, and ultimately more productive.
When we are rested, argues David Whyte, “we are ready for the world but not held hostage by it, rested we care again for the right things and the right people in the right way. In rest, we reestablish the goals that make us more generous, more courageous, more of an invitation, someone we want to remember and someone others would want to remember too.”
This is the life I want. How about. you? With love and light, Nora