A Different Perspective on Winning

Baron Pierre de Coubertin said, ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.’ I was lucky enough to be in Rio and watch four British Gold medals live at the Olympics and actually, I think it’s all about the winning and not the taking part. Let me tell you what I mean.

Most of us know about extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators are factors outside of ourselves, examples include financial success, reputation and status. Where as intrinsic motivators are factors within ourselves, such as mastery and growth or how something makes us feel. To motivate ourselves purely by extrinsic factors can be exhausting, frustrating and meaningless, as ultimately that desire can never be fulfilled and by its very nature is outside of our control. We also have different agendas in life, small and big. A small agenda might be to pass an exam, whereas the big Agenda, the Agenda of our life, is about pursuing what ultimately fulfils us in life. Small agendas lie along the path of our big Agenda, but the big Agenda is what we mustn’t lose sight of.

The Olympic athletes I was watching were living their big personal Agenda, fuelled by intrinsic motivation. When I watched Mo Farah win the 10,000 meters, he didn’t even appear to be part of the pack; he was in his own world. Similarly, the British Cycling Team Pursuit, clearly had a plan and executed it as if they were on a training session. It was almost as if the competition weren’t even there, nor the spectators, for that matter. The gymnast Max Whitlock after winning gold, explained that he never followed the competition, he just went up there and did his best. These athletes and their competitors were beating themselves, not others, and they were doing it for their own fulfilment. Their results at the 2016 Olympics may be one of many small agendas that help them get to their big Agenda, but they were not the big Agenda itself.

But it’s about the big results right? Those big moments when we either make it or we don’t? No. I would like to redefine ‘winning’ as staying on track every day to what we know is important to us.  Because at some point those big moments are going to be over and whether we win or lose, that moment will pass and lose its relevance. To define ourselves by someone, or something or some event outside of ourselves is to put our attention in the wrong place. We run around planning for the job we want to get, the promotion, the house we want to buy…. the life we want to have…. in the future. We are pulled in all these different directions, everything is there to complete, boxes to tick, big tasks to accomplish and then we just move onto the next thing. But actually we find ourselves in attendance, taking part, sitting in life’s waiting room for the happiness doctor to call our name, but they never do, because they are not there. It’s ludicrous. As if something or someone other than ourselves needs to be a trigger for us to do what we want to do, be who we really are, prove to ourselves that we are enough, to live our lives!

Meanwhile there are people passing us on the street who are here already, they have defined themselves by the way they want to lead their life and each day, whether they have hit their milestone or not, they are on track, they are winning. They are always embodying their own big Agenda.

Does Mo Farah define himself by getting the ‘double double’, and if so I wonder how he feels now that it is over?  What does his future hold? Or what about all those athletes who defined themselves on getting a gold medal, but didn’t? When Mo Farah was interviewed after winning the 5,000 meters, he explained how he has always hated losing, even at computer games. Winning is his code, his way of being. He lives it and breathes it every day and with everything. He has always been ‘on track’ and this was just an event along the way, a big one, a historical one, but not one that defines him. He exists beyond that; we all do.

I for one have spent too long just taking part; I’m catching up. I’ll let you into a little secret, which serves as just one of many examples and pains me to reveal, but is all in service of the truth. I started this blog thinking of how many ‘likes’ I would get once I posted it to social media. The words didn’t flow and it all felt a bit flat. My ego and extrinsic motivators drove my actions. The irony and hypocrisy of my mistake was not lost on me! I managed to put that aside and considered what I would write if none of that mattered, if I was just writing for myself. I then started to enjoy the process, the words flowed and I felt I was winning.

The world favours, supports and provides incentives for taking part, turning up, waiting for something that is always just out of reach, or the other side of some glossy expensive product or some fancy qualification. But glory is right in front of our nose; in the personal growth, personal mastery, personal understanding or whichever other intrinsic way we define ourselves. These we can celebrate every day, and they are conditional on none other than ourselves.

If you want success, then YOU define it, and as long as you do so with self-compassion, self-respect and perhaps some patience then you will find it. The Games are now and always will be; the big Agenda is never complete.

How do you define yourself? What’s your big Agenda? What does success look like to you? And how much of that is extrinsic vs intrinsic?

Hamish Mackay-Lewis