The Olympics: going for gold in life
“Success is never final, and failure is never fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.” - unknown origin, commonly attributed to Winston Churchill
With all the medals awarded and the Olympic flame extinguished in Rio, the world’s focus is starting to shift back to real life. For the handful of athletes who rocketed into superstardom like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, real life can wait a bit longer.
In the high-stakes world of competitive sports, success often feels zero-sum. One person’s win is another’s loss. Even a silver medal can seem like disappointment (ask two-time Olympic medalist & superstar figure skater Michelle Kwan, who is still one of the greatest of all time in my opinion).
Many athletes struggle with mental health issues like depression and substance abuse as a result. The exact statistics aren’t well tracked, but high profile competitors such as Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe and British track star Dame Kelly Holmes (both Olympic gold medalists) have recently come out publicly to discuss their personal battles with depression. For those still in the midst of competition, it’s about handling the pressure, and for those who have ended their careers, they toil with what’s next.
This problem is by no means unique to the Olympics. A slew of other athletes from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (yep, he played football in college) to boxer Oscar De La Hoya have have talked about their mental health challenges. And suicide ranks as the second highest cause of death among NCAA female student-athletes. Yes, the second. (By the way, it ranks 10th amongst the general population in America.)
How competition affects athletes may be an extreme case, but the learnings apply to how we live our daily lives.
The pressure to succeed off the field
When you devote your life to a goal, make sacrifices for it, and are told to visualize your dream daily, it’s sometimes hard to stomach not achieving that outcome or finding an identity beyond that one purpose.
That pressure is something I can relate to as a startup founder. Sure, my Mount Olympus is inhabited by unicorns, the term for startups valued at more than $1B (yes, as in billion, apparently the new bar for “success” in Silicon Valley). And my judges are investors. The same fear of failure still rings true.
The strengths that make us successful -- relentless focus, ultra-high standards, and all-or-nothing competitiveness -- can also be our potential Achilles' heel. If we worry too much about failure and are unable to cope with setbacks, that can often result in anxiety, depression, or crippling self-doubt.
Talk to a high-powered CEO like Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, or a politician running for office like Hillary Clinton, or a software engineer working all night to hit an important release, or any new parent for that matter, and you’ll realize this feeling is more pervasive than any of us talk about. It’s only made worse by our propensity for success.
Gold medalist swimmer Allison Schmitt describes it best: “We’re taught we can push through anything… and we’re always told to not ask for help."
But when we find ourselves in a negative pattern of thinking, it’s important to make a change.
The playbook: five tips to thrive under pressure
The answer isn’t stopping to compete altogether. It’s about learning how to look at the race differently, so that you make it through in one piece and even thrive. Some fear of failure can be motivating; too much can be debilitating. It takes real work to strike a healthy balance.
Below are some tips I’ve learned (and am still learning) that help me cope with stress and turn the negative energy into a positive. Fittingly, many of these came from friends and mentors who used to play competitive sports.
1. Take a timeout
When momentum is down in a game or you start making unforced errors, you often take a timeout to reset. The same holds true in life. Slowing things down and practicing deep breathing are useful mindfulness techniques. I find a little break goes a long way in giving me new perspective and helping me address obstacles with an improved focus.
This is also a great tip to avoid saying things that can’t be un-said with a significant other, as I’ve learned the hard way.
2. Forgive yourself
Every athlete falters; otherwise, they aren’t truly pushing their bodies. Similarly, everyone faces tough odds and fails at some point in life. Those I know who are most successful forgive themselves for their mistakes, learn, pick themselves up, and move on.
Just ask Brit Derek Redmond, who was predicted to medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics only to have his hamstring pop midway through the race. Instead of giving up, Derek hobbled to the finish (with the help of his dad, who ran onto the track) to solidify one of the most inspiring moments in sport. If you can get through that video without crying, you might not be human.
3. Re-define success
Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar got 4th in the vault in the Rio games and didn’t even medal. But as the first Indian female gymnast to ever compete at the Olympics and only one of five women in the world to ever land the Produnova, the most difficult vault currently performed, she inspired billions in India and around the world.
In the startup world, it’s easy to look at success only in terms of Silicon Valley milestones and fundraising dollars. On a particularly rough day, a good friend challenged me about why I started reflect in the first place. That conversation reminded me that my goal was to help people like myself learn how to deal with stress better. Fundraising is just a means to that end (and not always a necessary one). If we narrowly define success, we often miss the big picture.
4. Find a team
It’s hard going at anything alone. Athletes have parents, friends, and teammates who support them. Thankfully, I have a great group of friends, family, mentors, and advisors who have made a huge difference, too. They cheer me up when I have bad days and challenge my thinking on key issues. It’s important we all find teammates who can support us.
5. Hire a coach or trainer
Even with great family and friends, it would be foolish for an athlete to compete at the Olympics without a coach, yet too many people go through life without a therapist. And I’d argue the stakes in life are much more important. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious or depressed -- it’s not ok to try to tackle it alone.
A therapist is someone who runs by your side, adjusts your technique, and enables you to finish the race stronger. He or she can help you work through the specific challenges that might be hindering your game. My therapist has empowered me to manage the peaks and valleys of startup life better and has taught me how to balance my career goals with the rest of life.
If you don't already work with a therapist, I highly encourage you to try reflect. Our goal is to create the “gym for your soul” because we could all benefit from having a trainer in life. Click here and get matched for FREE today. (Note, we're only currently in San Francisco.)
Sure, I still work 90 hours a week on reflect with hopes of reaching our Mount Olympus. The feedback we've received from clients, therapists, advisors, and investors over the last year has been so energizing that I can almost see the top. On some days though, I still take some bumps in the road personally. I’m not sure if that’ll ever change.
Along the way, I’m working on becoming a better athlete in life by managing the ups and downs -- the wins and losses -- with a bit more mindfulness and grace. By approaching the situation differently, I'm able to climb faster, higher, stronger, which incidentally is the Olympic motto (Citius, Altius, Fortius). Quite appropriate for startup life, too.
These tips help me, and I hope they help you, too. Please comment below if you have any experience with these suggestions or have other ideas you’d like to share that have worked for you.
And remember: in life, the real gold medal isn’t awarded by someone else. It’s something you give yourself, and that prize is definitely not winner-take-all.