Beyond Competition: Changing Your Relationship With Success


Everyone wants to be #1
(Image Courtesy William Murphy)


Have you ever let a bad run slow you down? You’re not alone.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people lately who, for one reason or another, are dissatisfied with their running performance.

For some, it’s missing the personal record (“PR” for any new runners in the audience) they had been hoping for. For others, it’s feeling like they’re not running far enough, or not training hard enough.

Regardless of the cause, their anxiety is the same:

“I’m not as good as I should be.”

However, while we dwell on what we feel we should be doing, what we should be capable of, we are neglecting all the things we can be doing to help us improve and meet our goals.

No one can be “the best”

This kind of destructive thinking comes from the way that we define success and failure. We labor under the false conception that there exists an absolute best, and an absolute worst.

Things that we perceive as taking us closer to this best, we consider successes. Those that take us further from it, we deem failures.

Take thirty seconds off your last 5k time? Success! Had to take a few days off for a cold or other injury? Failure…

But it’s not entirely our fault. We are trained from an early age to think of things in terms of opposition.

Day opposes night.
Love opposes hate.
And best opposes worst.

In reality, our very concept of best and worst as binary states is fundamentally flawed. And this blind focus on a false division can be more harmful to your long-term performance than you might imagine.

The Tao of success

In spite of what our conditioning tells us, these things are not opposites, but complements existing on a constantly moving continuum.

When you choose to compartmentalize success and failure, you obscure the fact that being the best or the worst are not static, achievable states. No one, not Ryan Hall, not Meb Keflezighi, and not you, can become and remain the best forever. Nor the worst.

By focusing only on these “endpoints,” you miss the lessons and experiences of everything in between. And since best and worst are only transitive, the in-between is really the whole experience.

Just as day could not exist without night, neither could success exist without failure. They are merely two points in the same cycle. Each new run is a chance to turn yesterday’s failure into today’s success. The few days you took off to nurse that injury may have prevented it from putting you out for the whole season, for example.

Changing your mindset

Once you can start thinking of failure as the necessary complement of success, then, and only then, can you succeed at the most important task of all: becoming the most excellent version of yourself.

What techniques have you found helpful for keeping you focused on growing your running beyond your failures? What lessons have you taken from a missed PR or other setback that made your successes possible?

  2 Responses to Beyond Competition: Changing Your Relationship With Success
  1. Pittman

    Good article, Tim. Training for the mind and body; just like excessive flab gets cut from the body, excessive negativity should get cut from the mind. Both will slow you down. Thanks for this. I’m including two links below that deal with some of the issues raised here, one thought-provoking and the other amusing.

    Thought-provoking:
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/01/23/peaked_performance/?page=full

    Amusing:
    http://www.xkcd.com/852/

    • Tim Woodbury

      Thanks, Pittman! The Globe piece is really interesting.

      If we do run up against the physical limitations of human achievement, what do you think the net effect on individual sports like running would be? Would the goal be to tie the world record? To push, instead of our speed, the limits of our endurance (which is already starting to happen with ultra-marathoning)? Some really interesting question in there.

      I saw the xkcd the other day. No one at work found it quite as funny as I did. Sports geek in a computer geek’s world, I guess. :P

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