What happens when ‘better’ needs to stop?

Learning to thrive in complexity

My background, was for many years, epitomised by the search for ‘better’. If there was a measurement then I was always really keen to find the way to push a little harder and see what more I could achieve. 

This was great in sport – there was always a personal best to chase, a different team to get selected for and more goals to score – and was a really useful way of maintaining momentum and my desire to make progress. 

Having something to measure myself against – the objective result, the extrinsic reward or the comparison to others – provided both a sense of where I was and what I could aim for. It was then for me to figure out how to do it – seeking advice from others, studying and practicing but it always came to down to dedication and hard work.

The search for better is at the heart of ambition and propelled me to see what is possible. There is of course a shadow side to all of this. My self-worth has often been measured by an objective result or the progress I’m making. At the heart of sport, education, our careers and the consumerist world we live in is an in-built dissatisfaction. Whatever I have achieved is more often than not another milestone on the way to something else. I, like many people, am susceptible to the fact that what was once aspirational quickly becomes normalised. Success is often something seen only in the rear-view mirror as my focus quickly shifts to the next thing.

The flip side of an ambition of wanting more or a thought of ‘need to get better tomorrow’ can be the fear of ‘I haven’t got enough or I’m not good enough today’. This can become all to obvious whenever results are not going my way or progress isn’t happening as quickly as I’d like.

There is nowhere this has been more obvious as a couple of swim races I was in last year. In both races I came second – my conditioning is such that my first thought was ‘why didn’t I win?’ and ‘how can I train harder for the next one?’. It took a few moments to find a perspective that was a bit more forgiving and a chance to celebrate that as a 50-year-old bloke that’s not a bad day out given that it was an open event and there were over 100 swimmers in each race.

That perspective has taken time to learn. It was in a yoga practice many years ago that a teacher mentioned the concept of samtosa – the deliberate act of contentment. The first time I heard this I thought it was nonsense! I didn’t understand how contentment could be helpful – it was the antithesis of what I believed in and felt like the source of mediocrity, stagnation and boredom. 

It was after years of yoga and meditation, including sitting for ten days in silence that I began to realise there was something in it! I’d always seen the route to happiness as the achievement of goals. The meditation opened my eyes to the massive value that can be found in acceptance and gratitude. There was a dawning realisation that I hadn’t invested enough time in appreciating what I did have as I was too busy focussing on what was missing.

This then presented a paradox – how can happiness be found in both achievement and satisfaction? Part of the answer came in considering that I wasn’t totally wrong – too much focus on contentment could lead to mediocrity and boredom. But I hadn’t considered the other side – the relentless chasing of better could lead to stress and burnout.

So, there had to a middle way, a place where I could access the best of both ways of thinking. A place where I could thrive within the complexity of the world around me. Thinking back to when I was a kid, this was the place in which ‘play’ was the most important thing. The realisation that the first time I jumped in the water, picked up a lacrosse stick or rode my bike it was all about having fun and enjoying myself. It was the enjoyment that always brought me back for another go. What I’d been guilty of was by being seduced by ambition – I’d let the idea of getting better become more important than the enjoying the experience.

Having played with this for a number of years now what I’ve noticed is that the less I’ve been obsessed with the result, the kinder I have been on myself, the more I’ve focussed on enjoying the act of doing something the upside has strangely been that I’ve actually achieved better results. And this isn’t only in sport – this is true to me in my work and my friendships. 

What is slowly leaving me is the fear of losing or being judged solely by the outcome of my performance. What is growing in its place is the recognition that I’m not defined by the speed I swim, my salary or my job title. There is much more to me, and the more I get out of my own way the easier it is to access.

What I’ve noticed is that I now have choice in the way I think or the source of my happiness. If progress is important then I can still draw on that competitive and driven side of me. But if I notice fear and anxiety creaping in then I have something else to draw from – accepting what is and being grateful for the people and the things around me.

At the moment as I deal with the reality of multiple weeks of lockdown it is the deliberate act of contentment that has become a much more productive source for my happiness and wellbeing.

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