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Winning at Life

I’m fascinated by the idea of performance, excellence, achievement and success.

If you have been watching the Olympics, you won’t have missed Simone Biles, champion gymnast, pulling out of the team and all-around gymnastic events to protect her mental well-being.

Olympic Rings, Olympics 2020

By any measure Biles is successful. She is a standout. But that success doesn’t always feel good or comfortable. She says it isn’t always a route to satisfaction.

I was interested to see Piers Morgan’s criticism of athletes that are satisfied to win second or third place at the games.

“It’s great” he tweets “to see @TeamGB athletes win Gold medals, not least so we can stop pretending Bronze is an achievement worthy of national celebration”.

As if, somehow, being second or third best in the world, on the day, is unworthy of celebration. Second or third best at something a possible 7.5 billion+ people are less good at. Still sounds like a massive achievement to me.

The problem with this kind of view is that it fetishizes winning to the exclusion of what really makes an Olympian: effort, sacrifice, focus, attitude, talent. (And the political theorist in me wants to point out that effort is not the only factor. But also luck. Social support. Cultural circumstances.)

Olympic Rings, Winning at Life

What can we ordinary, non-Olympic heroes learn from Biles?

A quick trawl of Linkedin last week left me feeling anxious and vulnerable. Why? Because that app in particular epitomises the attitude that we have to be winners. It’s full of claims about bestness, supremacy, superiority and comparison. It fills me with fears that I have to be best, supreme, superior, or better.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not true. Despite its prevalence this is an opinion, not a truth. Although it’s hard to buck these norms, we can choose to live and work by a different set of values.

And my values are different than the ones that Morgan seems to espouse. Different than those that dominate Linkedin. My values are about excellence, learning, trust, kindness, compassion and collaboration.

If you feel uncomfortable in a competitive environment obsessed with comparison and besting the rest, perhaps your values are different too.

Biles said in her post withdrawal press conference “we should be out there having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case”. She goes on to say that the absence of fun and enjoyment has a knock-on effect on being a good competitor. Well, let’s take it from a champion. Pushing and winning is not everything. Excellence requires enjoyment, taking care of ourselves, stepping back when we need space, and self-compassion.

It’s not all push, push, push.

Excellence can be achieved in different ways.

A compassionate coaching approach

I’ve sometimes had an uncomfortable relationship to principles of coaching. The ones that urge that striving, pushing, bettering is what is required. Setting uncomfortable goals to be reached at all costs.

In fact, I find this approach antithetical to how I want to live and work. It puts me on edge. It makes me too self-reflexive. It gets in the way of living in the moment. It creates the mindset that you should always be looking forward. You should always aim to have or be something different.

It focuses on outside measures of success (stuff, accolades, praise, admiration) rather than internal ones (contentment, consistency, satisfaction, fulfilment). It chases highs (elation, pride, excitement) rather than a steady and constant state.

I favour an approach where enjoying, valuing, savouring, and purposeful action takes precedence. Because I trulybelieve that joy and valuing your pursuits creates excellence. Goals don’t have to be uncomfortable to be valuable.

In withdrawing from this year’s Olympic competition, does Simone Biles become less of a champion? Absolutely not. Biles has been a pioneer in her sport, changing the face of gymnastics. She has been a many-times-over winner. And now she's demonstrating thought leadership by saying that her priorities need to reflect her current mental state.

This is how I think good life coaching operates. It doesn’t fetishize a particular paradigm of success for its own sake. It is flexible in how it approaches goal setting. And it recognizes that a focus on winning at life is not always healthy or desirable.


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