As I was drinking a good local coffee near Doi Suthep summit in Thailand, with this beautiful view, I took 4 minutes to watch David Popovici smashing the WJ Record and becoming World Champion at 200m and continuing towards winning the 100m freestyle at only 17 years old. This is such a big performance as he is the first person to pull this double in the last 40 years.
This brought tears to my eyes. I admit. I get emotional with success. I always did! And I have been working with this for a long time now.
Then, suddenly, my partner and coach at home asks me:
What’s the opposite of success, for you?
And the first thought that came to my mind was… failure. Then the second thought was irrelevance… then blank!
And a weird feeling of shame and astonishment arose as I was voicing these thoughts. I kind of knew them, but verbalizing them in this context was way more powerful and I have felt them deeply. And I embodied the learnings.
As in my home country there is a big debate all over social media about the educational system and if the schools should give prizes to pupils, I had mixed feelings about this all the way. It was difficult to take any balanced side because there is a collective trauma embedded in that. Competition is deeply ingrained in human nature but above some levels it is also toxic. That is when it comes at all cost and when it impedes collaboration.
I believe performance should be rewarded. But as over 85% of the “success” we are seeing is trauma driven, this needs more consideration. When we are looking at the all time best swimming champion Michael Phelps, we may want to see the other side of his story. No amount of winning would actually fill the void that he was fighting for. And after all the remarkable records, and flawless 2008 Beijing Olympics where he won 8 gold medals he skipped practices, argued with coaches and was “more and more unsure who he was as a person. “I just didn’t care” he declared. Winning 4 gold medals and 2 silver in the following Olympics in 2012 in London felt like a disappointment for Phelps and he announced his retirement from swimming. This sent him spiraling down and into the darkest moments of his life.
“I still remember the days, not wanting to see anybody, not wanting to talk to anybody, really not wanting to live,” Phelps said. “I was on an express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be.”
This eventually led to substance abuse, an DUI arrest for drunk driving and a rehab process.
We may argue if, all in all, his upbringing which in his words “wasn’t ideal” was a good thing or a bad thing. Afterall, it led him there. In coaching we may reframe any story along this line: “every trauma is a gift”. But this can only be perceived as such if it comes with inner love and compassion. Only if performance can come with flow, joy and inner stillness. There can be struggle along the way. But the answer to it needs to be awareness. And for Phelps, I believe it is not us to judge or attempt to answer. It is for him to discern what it took and if it was all worth it.
Now, why did I start with Popovici?
It is because I have heard his mindset while speaking. It is so powerful and balanced that it makes you feel his flow. He may be amongst the rare 15% performers that actually get there from will and not coping mechanisms. Time will tell. But, what makes me put the light there is that his parents, coaches are not putting the habitual pressure that we are seeing so often. They are not projecting their own expectations, their unresolved trauma, unsettled failures and want to push their kid to compensate for that. They were asking David how he felt while competing. And what stayed with me was the insight that David Popovici gave us about his internal talk while swimming at the olympics. As he was immersed in his internal dialogue he had this thought: “God, I love this!” and this came so powerful as he didn’t even realize if he was actually speaking alone in the water. This is beautiful only to hear, isn’t it?
I believe this is the exact place where the secret lies concerning the scholar performance system also. The praised performance should not be there as a result of parent’s push, theirs or society’s needs for love and validation. It may be more rewarding if it comes as a result of a more healthy endeavor.
And this is particularly valid for the corporate world. It is for all this need for childhood love and acceptance that a lot of toxic leadership arises. The way up the corporate ladder is, as in the sports arena, based on a lot of unresolved issues. The only problem is that this may be directly impacting a huge amount of lives. Without proper personal and professional growth, awareness and self leadership we will not fill that void. We will follow twisted definitions of success and then, when up we will realize that nothing is there. The most unfortunate are having this during a burnout, divorce, illness, loss. And, then, the transformation needed is non-negotiable. Lately, we see a lot of these moments present in coaching. Through pandemics, war and a historical shift in our general way of working we see a lot of chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression. But, if we reframe it from a resourceful stance, this is also a great opportunity to redefine ourselves personally and professionally.
I am now on a growth journey around the world to work, explore, write and observe. It is still fascinating to me to observe my patterns and work on them. Yes, I would indulge success, but if it comes as the result of my contributions. And those are made mainly from a flow state and not a struggling one.
What about you? Write to me about yourself!
What’s your relationship with success and what are you doing for yourself? How would you define it? What investment are you willing to make? How do you want to feel on the journey towards it?