Most people seem to accept that we are not defined by our failures, even if they struggle to internalize it. We identify with the implicit premise that there is an essence to humanity that transcends extrinsic outcomes, particularly when the outcome is negative. This just feels right to us because losing or failing at something sucks old car tires and that’s not a feeling that people want tied to their being. So, it’s easy to feel that feeling and say, “That’s not me. That is just this situation, I am bigger than this shitty feeling.” However, if you believe that, which I think most people do, then that means that we are also not defined by our successes. In other words, if our essence is somehow more than negative extrinsic outcomes, then it follows that the thing that makes us who we are, also transcends positive outcomes. And while it’s pretty intuitive that we are more than our failures, I think it’s much more difficult to accept and internalize that we are also more than our successes. Winning or succeeding or accomplishing our goals feels really really good and so when we get that feeling I think it’s easy to say, “That’s me, I did that, that’s my feeling.” If you don’t believe me that many people struggle to accept that the corollary to, “we are not defined by our failures” is “we are not defined by our successes” then go look at a few social media bios of people who are publicly trying to accomplish things. My guess is that it won’t take long for you to find a few where the person has listed their accomplishments right there under their name like a resume, as if to say, “This is me, I have done these important and impressive things and that’s why you should care about my life.” It’s as if we tie ourselves, almost to the point of fetishization, to our best days and greatest successes while letting our failures and missteps fall away behind us.
In addition to the different feelings that we experience in response to our successes and failures, I think it’s hard to accept that if we are not defined by our failures then we are also not defined by our successes because of the different ways we console people who just failed or congratulate those who have succeeded. After someone fails or loses, we tell them to “Let it go” or to “Put it behind you” or “You’ll bounce back.” And I think that’s all really good advice because, like, it’s over. The performance is literally behind you on the timeline of your life. But, compare that language to what people get told when they succeed. When someone wins they’re told to, “Soak it all in” as if the implications of their performance are somehow becoming a part of them like the food that they eat. Or, “This is your moment” as if, when someone succeeds they’ve finally reached their rightful place as A Winner. And, by the way, “this is your moment?” No, it is not. You can’t possess a moment, it’s not available for ownership. It’s just a moment in time that was preceded by a different moment and then followed by another, different, moment.
So, if the way we deal with the outcomes of our performances, particularly positive ones, maybe isn’t the healthiest thing, how should we change the way we process both positive and negative performances? Well, sometimes on Headspace, the soothing British voice that leads the guided meditations uses this metaphor about the sky that I think is particularly applicable to this topic. He says some version of; clouds may drift into the sky above you, but the blue sky will always exist beyond the clouds. Meaning that things like anxiety or depression or frustration or happiness or bliss may be present, but who we are, our self, is not fixed to those things. It’s ok to be curious about and appreciate and experience those clouds, but we don’t need to form an attachment to them. We can just watch them as they drift past, always with the knowledge that the blue sky exists beyond them. That’s how I feel about how we should engage with our performances, good or bad or somewhere in between. We can look at them and study them and evaluate them as they go past. But, then they move on and the blue sky is all that’s left.
I’m not saying that this is an easy idea to accept or even that I am good at accepting it. I struggle with the dichotomy of the ways we treat winning and losing just as much as most people. Just the other day, I was struggling in a workout and I was getting gapped by my teammate, Matt Llano, and an exact thought that went through my head was, “Why am I struggling? This is bullshit. I was 5th at the NYC ½ like a month ago. I should be able to do this.” As if I was somehow superior to the workout, or immune to having a bad day because I had a really good day a month ago. I was so attached to that performance that when a hard workout butted up against the success I had previously achieved, I was left clinging to the fleeting memory of a good result from a month before instead of trying to take care of the task at hand. Compare that mindset to the mindset described by the blue sky metaphor that advocates putting distance between you and your results.
When you detach yourself from your results a little bit, it makes you wonder: what if we treated our successes in the same way we treat our failures? What if we let our success drift past us like clouds in the sky? From a purely technical standpoint, I think treating our successes more like our failures would certainly yield more progress. When we win, I think we tend to inflate the importance of inherent traits, and it’s pretty hard to honestly evaluate inherent traits and come up with any meaningful changes that will lead to further improvement. When we fail, however, I think we tend to look outward for reasons to explain the result. And that forces us to evaluate the way we are doing things. It puts us in a place to question practices that we otherwise may not have, and that place of self-evaluation often yields progress. I certainly know this to be true from my own personal experience. At the 2017 Houston Half Marathon, I threw myself a little pity party around mile 10, because it hurt real bad and I wasn’t doing as well as I had hoped. After the race, I came home, did some soul searching and began to really try to run and train for the sake of self-actualization instead of for the extrinsic accolades. A few weeks later, I ran the hardest I had ever run, and consequently I ended up making the World Championship Team in Cross Country. Then, 8 months later, I was coming off my 2:12 marathon, and I was resting on my laurels a little bit, expecting my fitness to come easily. As one might expect, given the themes of this piece and the fact that we are all in the future together, I underperformed at a couple of early season races. In the block immediately following that, I got back to doing the little things well and scrapping for every ounce of fitness I could find in training. Then, 5 weeks later I was 5th at the NYC ½ Marathon in one of the best races I’ve ever run. What I’m saying is, even if you’re only interested in progress and maximizing your ability, it would be a fruitful thought experiment to ask yourself things like, what would I have pointed to as a reason for failing, after good performances. Or, what would I have ascribed my success to if this had gone better, after bad ones. And you can only get good answers to those questions when give your performances a little bit of space.
While responding to winning like we deal with losing because that will yield more progress, is all fine and good I think that there is another reason to process our successes as if they were failures. Because it’s over. Once the race, or the game, or the presentation, or whatever you are doing ends, you are no longer winning or succeeding or losing or failing anymore. It’s a different moment and when we fail, we seemingly get that, we try to pick our head up and shake it off because, like I said earlier, we understand that we aren’t defined by our failures. It’s coming off a win that we are left hanging on to a fleeting memory. We tie ourselves to the past rather than continuing to move into the present moment.
There’s this story I read once that I think really illustrates this idea. It starts with two monks, one elder monk and one much younger apprentice. They were going on a walk through the forest when they came across a woman who had fallen into a strong and fast flowing stream that she could not free herself from. The elder monk jumped into the stream and scooped her up with his strong arms and set her down on the bank. By this time a crowd of people had gathered, and they said that they wanted to take the monk back to their nearby town and throw this monk a feast and a parade because the woman he had saved was the princess and her father would be very happy to hear that she had not drowned in the stream. The monk just bowed to the onlookers and went on his way. The younger monk hurried after him, and they continued walking in silence. As they approached the monastery the younger monk could take it no longer. He exclaimed, “You did a great thing, you saved that woman. Why didn’t you want to celebrate with those people?” The older monk replied, “I left her back there, are you still carrying her?”