Performance writer Brad Stulberg, in a recent article for Outside Online, posits this question( https://www.outsideonline.com/2348226/case-being-good-enough). For anyone who is hoping to train for a Tough Mudder or a tough midterm, it’s completely relevant.
Boy have I been there.
As Paul Flannery discussed in his Medium piece about middle age extreme sports enthusiasts (https://medium.com/s/greatescape/extreme-athleticism-is-the-new-midlife-crisis-d87199a18bed), many of us, especially those who are beginning to question their longevity, may throw themselves wholesale into triathalons or marathons. Or whatever.
As someone who grew up with a supremely talented older brother, I always felt that I had to work twice as hard. Being female, even more so. Minorities know this feeling. As we age, progress (or don’t) and take on a goal that appeals to us, many of us can feel extreme pressure to succeed beyond our wildest dreams. That’s especially true once we’ve found something that we love, and find ourselves moderately competent at performing- whether it’s quilting or competing in sports.
Given the implicit pressure that we can feel from comparing ourselves to the (mostly very misleading) lives of others on Instagram on Facebook for whom success is a breeze — yah right — when we don’t win the race or beat our times or get the promotion, it can be defeating.
It needn’t be. In fact, the compulsion to be great is part of the problem.
There is an underlying, implicit message in today’s marketing that if you and I aren’t GREAT- I can hear Tony the Tiger in my ear- then we’re worthless.
We all want our bragging rights.
Part of the lie of this is that we are none of us truly equal. You are natural at calculus, I suck at it. I’m a born stage storyteller, your knees knock so hard that when the lights go up, you puke. Someone else is a superb runner, you and I have to train twice as hard just to keep up on their slowest days.
Thank god for those differences.
While Shakespeare (who was an excellent literary thief of his times) is sometimes credited with the phrase, Comparisons are odious, he didn’t coin it.
The earliest recorded use of this phrase appears to be by John Lydgate in his Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep, circa 1440:
“Odyous of olde been comparisonis, And of comparisonis engendyrd is haterede.”
It’s one thing to strive to be better, even excellent, at a job, or skill, or hobby.
It’s another entirely to constantly compare ourselves to the best of the best, and then be bitterly disappointed when we fall short. To feel worthless, as though our entire value is dictated only by reaching the absolute pinnacle.
Stulberg quotes the venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose books I reference every morning. What creates happiness, rather, is to begin where we are and find joy in what we currently have, are doing.
As we said in the Sixties, Be here now.
That demands a certain level of EQ or emotional quotient, which requires an honest assessment, sans hyperbole, of who we are. What we can really do. What genuine accomplishments look like for us, rather than as measured against some impossible standard.
This kind of thinking has come into play for me the last several weeks as I begin my countdown to leave for Africa. There I plan to climb Mt. Kenya, assuming all goes well.
A part of me, that part of me which is ego-based, wanted to push extremely hard these last few weeks.
My aging body (I’m 65) had other ideas. I began to experience knee pain, which is a sure sign of overuse syndrome. So, I canned the heavy pack, backed off the intensity of the workouts. The knee pain vanished.
Given that I’ve hiked some 74,000 steps since July 8th in preparation for this climb, chances are I’ll be just fine. In fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of jogging 2400 steps with nothing on my back, listening to old ABBA music (yes I do, you can laugh), and feeling how light I am without those extra pounds.
Like many others, there’s a compulsive exerciser in me that believes that if I don’t go hell bent for leather these remaining weeks, then I won’t make the summit.
Ultimately, who cares? Who’s measuring? Who’s watching? Answer: nobody.
Whether or not I reach the top of this particular mountain isn’t relevant. I wanted the BHAG as a motivator to get my legs in shape.
Done. Good lord, are they.
I wanted to get back to Africa and ride across Madagascar. That’s in the plan, assuming I don’t go ass over teakettle over a ridge.
Beyond that, what on Earth do I need to prove?
Part of reaching a Certain Age, although there’s no guarantee here, is recognizing when to back off, slow down, rest the body. Since my Facebook account is closed and I’m not on Instagram or Pinterest, I don’t have a broad social media audience to try to impress with my aging athlete deeds. My hope is that I don’t possess the level of narcissism to feel that I must post my progress, photos and triumphs (small though they be) as a way of shoring up a tattered self-image. No number of likes from the amorphous masses will make up for the damage I could do to myself trying to be what I am not: a world-class athlete.
Speaking of narcissism, this might be a truly enlightening read: http://www.jeantwenge.com/the-narcissism-epidemic-book-by-dr-jean-twenge/
If anything, taking on these goals at this point serves as a way to keep in shape, allow me to do what I love, and expand my world. Not try to be the best at much of anything, other than myself, whatever that ends up being. There is only the me I was yesterday to compare myself to, and with luck some work goes into self-assessment to keep evolving. Not always. Because some days I wake up as a jerk, or lazy, or sad, or whatever. Those conditions provide me my lesson plans for the day.
There are days I bloody well don’t want to go do steps. I make myself do them anyway.
There are days I feel righteous and rude and demanding. Time to look in the mirror.
There are days I feel lonely. Do the inner work or go spend time with friends. Or both.
Good enough is just that: good enough. It’s not settling for less, or making excuses, especially if continued striving costs our bodies, our equilibrium, our joy, our relationships. We’re surrounded by constant messaging that if we aren’t going full tilt all the time, then we’re wimps.
Fine. I’ll wimp out here.
Sacrificing my knees in an effort to out-badass everyone else is just plain stupid. Especially when those whom that delicate, self-obsessed part of me is hoping to impress are others who are just as self-obsessed as I am. The only thing most of them want to know is whether or not they’ve done better than I have. Given that, I’m happy with steady progress, a few steps back, more forward, rest, rinse, repeat.
This isn’t settling for mediocrity. There are plenty of demands you and I can place on ourselves every single day to do better, grow, and evolve.
The only question that you and I really need to ask is not whether we’re GREAT by comparison to others, but whether we are living our best lives. That is uniquely defined by each of us. Tony the Tiger GREAT for me is being healthy enough to do some pretty amazing travel. GREAT for you could be simply spending time with your grandkids. Finishing that MBA. Building that new deck. For some, getting up and walking across the room after a terrible accident. GREAT is situational.
What’s also implicit here is permission.
Permission to step off the merry-go-round of needing to be the best. Turning off the treadmill of having to win at all costs.
You and I alone know when we’re putting out best out there. It’s a singularly personal conversation with the Self. Ideally, borne of love and respect. Knowing what is enough, good enough, for today, is, indeed, GREAT.