Now that the Olympics are occurring in London, and are being televised all over the world, many people are finding themselves motivated to start exercising. Naturally, observers find inspiration in watching the highly-trained athletes, sometimes believing that that sort of physical excellence and achievement is within their reach.
While I applaud any effort toward improving one’s physical condition, I’m critical of unrealistic expectation. Of course, goals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some goals are more realistic than others. But I think there may be some misconception in regards to what it takes to reach a high degree of athletic success.
Let’s first try to be clear about what constitutes “success” – acknowledging, of course, that there are many interpretations of it. Earl Nightingale (1921 – 1989) – an American motivational speaker and author – said that success could be defined as the “progressive realization of a worthy goal”. By this definition, anyone who is improving (getting closer to their ultimate goal), is a success. I might take it a step further and define is as follows: “following through on a plan, without hesitation or compromise, in the quest of a measurable goal”.
Following through means not quitting, despite the enormous amount of effort required, despite injury, despite cost, or despite nearly anything else – with maximum commitment, effort and focus. And taking it all the way to the finish line – come hell or high water.
A measurable goal could be a bodybuilding contest, a goal weight, a career position or anything else that can be specifically named. The odds of success are best if it’s a realistic goal – if others have succeeded in that same quest, with circumstances similar to yours.
After the goal has been selected, it’s essential that a plan be formulated – a strategy. In order to do that, all the requirements of the plan need to be clearly understood and considered. The likely rate of progress, the period of time between the starting and ending points, the amount of time, effort and money required, the sacrifices – all need to be considered. Anything less is fantasy.
In addition, distractions need to be set aside. It’s impossible to stay on course if one’s mind is focused on too many things – especially if some (or even one) of those things demand(s) much of your time, attention and resources. This is especially true if those resources are limited. Without doubt, having too much on one’s plate, and having insufficient resources available for the goal (because they’re being diverted elsewhere) – will derail the trajectory toward that goal.
This will likely mean serious sacrifices in one’s preferred way of life. All too often, I see people spending time, energy, money and thought elsewhere – in areas that will not contribute to the success of their goal, and which conflict with their goal. This was demonstrated in the movie – “Rocky III”. As you may recall, Stallone plays the role of a boxer who was bathing in the glory of his previous victory, with dire consequences. It wasn’t until someone told him about “the eye of the tiger” – a reference to the desperate hunger of a tiger on the hunt – that he finally began making forward progress. He was taken to a small, no frills gym, where he began training in isolation and avoided the distractions. Whether one is busy bathing in glory, or simply enjoying life’s comforts, there is no room in that kind of life for the kind of sacrifices necessary for Olympic gold, or a bodybuilding trophy.
It’s been said that the difference between success and failure, is pursuing that which a person wants most, versus what a person wants now – delayed gratification versus immediate gratification. Most people want fun now, and essentially trade away greater fun (victory) in the future. They may not know they’re doing it, but that’s only because they have not focused their sites on a specific goal, they haven’t sat down and created a plan for moving toward that goal, and they haven’t recognized the requirements of that plan. Only then can a person see the obstacles in the way, and eliminate those distractions ahead of time.
For a moment, let’s focus on that definition of success given by Earl Nightingale – “the progressive realization of a WORTHY goal.” While it may seem obvious which goals are worthy and which ones are not, the definition of “worthy” needs to be understood. It’s a matter of WHY – not of WHAT – the goal is. Why does a person want that goal? All too often, the motivation behind the goal is the approval, admiration and accolades of others. I submit that the motivation for a goal should be intrinsic – the personal sense of achievement and a passion for that pursuit – and NOT the approval of others.
There’s an interesting irony here. The people who are most successful, tend to be the ones who are least interested in the approval of others. This is what allows them to focus ALL of their attention on the work required to achieve their goal. It’s why they can delay gratification – why they can push aside their social life, their comforts, their flirtations, their preferred foods, their concern about how they are perceived by others – and enter the world of sacrifice and hard work. It requires – to a large degree – isolation and deprivation. And afterwards, while the attention of others is nice, it was not – and cannot be – the primary motivation.
Conversely, the person who is mostly motivated by the approval of others, is usually impatient, prefers immediate gratification, and often perceives the required sacrifices as overwhelming. In fact, some even fool themselves into thinking that they have “perfectly good reasons” why they cannot make those sacrifices, or why they think those sacrifices aren’t really necessary. But that’s the point – people who live typically mediocre lives justify the reasons they have not been successful, while those who succeed do whatever the hell it takes to pursue their goal to the best of their ability. They make sacrifices that others would never consider – and that is precisely why there are far fewer people who succeed, than people who fail.
Reverend Bob Richards – Olympic gold medal winner (1952 and 1956, in pole vaulting), minister, preacher, and motivational speaker – famously said that “there is victory in defeat, if one has given it their very best effort….and there is defeat in victory, if one fails to give it their best effort, even if he (or she) wins the trophy”. Amen to that. While it’s always nice to win the 1st place award, the real competition is with oneself. It’s self-mastery that determines one’s personal success. And self-mastery is exactly what the names implies – the ability to truly master one’s actions and determine his (or her) own course. Anything else is impulse – and no one ever achieved anything great allowing their impulses (cravings, emotional needs, comforts and preferences) to dictate their course of action. That’s called a hedonist – and there is no glory in that.
Success is reserved for those who can handle the grueling sacrifices required to achieve the goal. If bodybuilding competition is the goal, those sacrifices involve time, mental focus, physical effort, physical pain, exhaustion, hunger, isolation, deprivation and money – all wrapped up in a game plan, with an ending date and a definable goal. In essence, it could be said that the odds of one achieving success are commensurate with a person’s willingness to make the necessary sacrifices…to do the homework…to do whatever it takes.
So before you set out to “be like the Olympians”, or like some other person you admire, consider what it really takes to get there. Again, I’m not discouraging people who embrace lesser goals. I’m simply recommending that goals be realistic and a person embark on a journey with their eyes wide open – fully informed of what it takes to succeed.