Thousands of people packed the stadium. People wore their home nation’s colours with pride. Face paint and flags and t-shirts in every combination. The athletes in the middle of it all had battled through days of competition.
‘And, stepping onto the podium… Christie Jenkins!’
The sound of his voice was almost drowned out as my teammates and friends in the audience screamed at the top of their lungs. They waved a giant Aussie flag above their heads.
I stepped up onto the podium.
Medals are funny things. Small pieces of metal, but around your neck their weight is a heavy reminder of your countless sacrifices, the pressure of the event, the uncertainty of the outcome, and the expectations that you and others have for your performance.
That day, as the weight of the medal settled around my neck, I felt all of those things. Joy. Relief. Excitement. Pride.
‘Please stand for the national anthem…’
A different lens on success
Go to any bookstore and there are probably more books written about success than any other topic.
How to be successful. How to attain success. How to make others think you are successful.
The thing I haven’t seen in a bookshop, that I want to explore, is feeling successful.
‘Do you feel successful in your life?’
It may not be a question you’ve ever asked yourself. I never had. The first time I was asked this question was in the middle of a job interview. (Pretty deep for a first round interview!) As an athlete I’ve been told I’m successful. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as feeling it…
Success is relative
When we think about being successful or feeling successful, the number one concept to get our heads around is success is always relative.
Are you successful?
To answer this question, we are really looking at success from an external perspective.
‘Are you successful?’ means looking at your performance relative to what other people have done.
If you scored an A on a test, that means you did better than your classmates. If you stand on top of the podium, it means you ran faster than your competitors. If you get the promotion, it means you are more successful than your peers in an organisation.
You are successful if you outperform other people.
Do you feel successful?
To answer this question, we are looking at success from an internal perspective.
‘Do you feel successful?’ means looking at your performance relative to your own expectations.
If you aimed just to pass the test and instead got an A, you feel successful. If you expected to win and you did, you feel successful. If you got the promotion when you thought it was a long shot, you feel successful.
You feel successful if you meet or outperform your own expectations.
In an ideal world we are both successful and feel successful. In reality, I can probably count the moments in my life where this has happened on my fingers.
Why is success so complicated?
The size of the pond matters
As a kid, you mostly compared yourself to your 28 classmates. Almost everyone could be good at something in a pool that small. As an adult, you might compare yourself to the people that work in your company, or perhaps in your industry. The pool is larger, but still not that big.
What the internet has done has made the pool of people you compare yourself to infinite. No one at your university made a million dollars by the age of 21, but you can easily find 1000 people online who have. None of your friends have an 8-pack of abs, but on Instagram it seems like every second person does.
If success is relative, and the pool of people you are comparing yourself to is everyone in the world, then you literally have to be the best in the world to feel successful.
Your personal expectations are not truly personal
Feeling successful is about meeting or exceeding your internal expectations. The problem is, those expectations don’t form in a vacuum.
Imagine your dream home. How did you arrive at that image? Is it a house or an apartment? That probably depends on what country live in. How big is it? Perhaps just a little bigger than the homes of your friends and family. Is it modern or traditional? Who else in your life likes that style?
While we feel successful based on whether we achieve our own goals and expectations, those expectations are shaped based on what the people around us aspire to and value.
On aiming lower
It seems you could cheat the system by not expecting too much, and then always feeling successful when you exceed your expectations. We probably all remember someone from school who would walk out of every exam saying ‘I definitely failed that one’ (when you know very well they’ve never failed anything).
This technique might help you feel successful in the short term, but by constantly aiming lower, eventually you’ll just start getting what you expect… not much at all.
Belief leads to relief
As an athlete what do I feel in the moment of victory? Joy – of course. Excitement – yes. Relief – also yes.
For those outside of elite sport the last of these emotions might be puzzling. Why would you feel relief when you’ve just achieved the ultimate success?
When you aim for crazy ambitious goals, you can’t want to win. You can’t hope to win. You can’t even believe that you could win. You have to know that you will win. Your belief in your ability has to be so certain that you expect to win.
Anything short of that certainty, and in the pressure of the game, a small crack of doubt can appear. In elite sport, a single moment of doubt is enough to lose the game.
Of course, even with this certainty of belief, you still might not be good enough to win. And losing hurts a hell of a lot more when you’ve spent so long building the expectation that you will win.
So we have a contradiction here – you need to expect success in order to achieve it, but in expecting to achieve such an audacious goal you leave yourself open to crushing disappointment if you fail. And if you do win… you’re likely to feel relief as much as joy.
What about the journey?
All this talk of whether you are successful or whether you feel successful… isn’t it the journey and not the outcome that matters?
Life is not as simple as this Intagrammable feel-good quote
Of course the journey matters. 99% of your time is spent on the journey towards your goal so you better enjoy the process.
But the outcome also matters.
For starters, would you even embark on a journey without an outcome in mind? It’s like going to the airport, getting on a plane just to fly around, and landing whenever you start running low on fuel. Who knows where you’ll end up!
You need an outcome to set your direction. And as soon as you have an outcome, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid judging whether or not you were successful in achieving it.
Does success have to be binary?
When I was asked ‘do I feel successful’ in my job interview, the answer that first sprung to mind was ‘mostly’.
As an athlete, regardless of which sport I was doing, being the best in the world has always been the goal. Did I make it? No. But top ten (in three different sports!) is pretty damn close.
The media portrays success as binary. Win or lose. In trampolining I’ve lost championships by 0.1 of a point. That’s a single judge blinking in the middle of your triple somersault. In beach volleyball I’ve lost tournaments because I hit a ball that landed 1cm out of the court. In CrossFit I’ve lost because my competitor lifted a single kilo more than me.
Am I successful? Compared to the winner, no. Compared to everyone else that plays that sport in the world, yes.
Do I feel successful? Compared to my goal of winning, no. Compared to how far I’ve come since I started the sport, yes. Comparing yourself to your previous performances is a good way to feel more successful.
Success isn’t binary. If you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you are a failure.
I stood on the podium. Held the medal tightly. And I beamed a smile at my friends in the crowd. Success.
‘Please stand for the national anthem… of China’ called the announcer.
I didn’t win that competition.
But as the Chinese national anthem played, I looked back at my performance during the week, and at the work I’d put in to get on that podium. I looked at the medal around my neck, the pride on my coach’s face, and the excitement on my friends’ faces
I felt successful.
And I was (mostly!) successful.
I looked up at the winner… there was always next year to get gold.
November 28, 2021