Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Limits of Winning

Tony Schwartz:
I'm not out to rain on the parade of extraordinary athletes who manage to win an Olympic gold medal. I'm also not a fan of competitions for children in which everyone gets a medal just for showing up. I just want to suggest the limitations of a "winner take all" mentality, not just in the Olympics but in our culture as a whole.

Let's start with the limitations for the winners themselves. The pursuit of any challenging goal is usually long and difficult, but the pleasure of the victory tends to be fleeting. As any gambler knows, there is more pain in losing than there is pleasure in winning. I say this not only from interviewing high achievers for several decades, but also from some experience of my own.

I was lucky enough — and luck had a lot to do with it — to have a couple of the books I've written reach number one on bestseller lists. These were enjoyable milestones, to be sure — confirmation of a certain kind of accomplishment and exhilarating when they occurred. But they were also just moments in time. Very quickly they became yesterday's news.

Just consider a winner such as Michael Phelps, who decided to move on from swimming after winning his 8 gold medals in Beijing four years ago. Very quickly, he found himself in a depression that lasted until he got back in the water and started training again, presumably hoping to recapture the feeling of satisfaction he'd lost so quickly. Whatever happens in these Olympics, Phelps must face the same question again once his races are over. "Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?" asked the poet Robert Louis Stevenson.

The glib answer is failure, but the real issue is that we've defined winning in a way that promises far more than it can deliver. We push children who show a glimmer of talent to focus in one sport, before they're teenagers, and even to sacrifice their bodies, so that they might become champions. We tell teenagers that the key to success is getting into a top-rated college, even though there are hundreds of schools at which it's possible to get a great education. When they graduate, society tells them that a key measure of achievement is financial success, and too often they pursue it believing that more and more money will eventually translate into happiness.
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