One of the fondest memories I have is also one of my most treasured personal accomplishments. It occurred about half my lifetime ago when I won the Brown Book Award at the end of my junior year in high school on Prize Day.
I went to a very competitive private all-boys high school in the Boston area. Nearly 20% of my 50 person class was accepted early into Harvard. And while there was great camaraderie amongst the boys in my class, there was also a constant feeling that everyone was looking over their shoulder at the next person, jockeying for position to get into the college of their choice.
I was pretty good at a bunch of things in high school but not really the best at anything. I guess you could say I was a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” I had a classmate who produced music who has now been nominated for Grammy’s; another was a great artist who now sells his work for thousands of dollars; many others were division 1 athletes, and some made it to the professional level; and at least ten of my classmates were part of the “Cum Laude Society” for the top GPAs in the class.
I was a good student, a three-sport varsity athlete and varsity wrestling captain, and I had some leadership positions in clubs and organizations at the school. I otherwise kept a low profile. It was a humbling place to be surrounded by so many smart, creative and hard-working people. There was always someone there who was better than me at whatever thing I was doing.
Thus, I had no expectations of winning a prize on Prize Day. In fact, I remember the Headmaster describing some of the things I had done at the school before saying who the winner of the award would be, and not putting two and two together that he was referring to me. It was not until the very end when it became more of a dead giveaway that I realized – much to my surprise – that I was the recipient of one of the four major awards handed out to members of the class. To this day, I still remember the rush of surprise but happiness that filled me in that moment. I had worked very hard throughout high school but I was not expecting anything. To be recognized for my effort was very satisfying.
I compare that moment to many other moments in my life where I have tied my satisfaction to a specific outcome and been utterly disappointed by the results.
I used to not be a very great runner, but I recently started to get into running. I never thought the day would come that I would run a half-marathon, but eventually the day did come and I knocked it out of the park in terms of completing the race and far exceeding my own expectations about how quickly I would do so. A couple of months later, I ran my second half-marathon, but this time, I got cramps toward the end, had to stop and walk several times, and ended up being about 14 seconds slower per mile than I had been the first time.
The way I reacted after this more disappointing outcome, you would have thought something much more serious had happened. I was in tears over the result, and my mind filled with self-loathing, doubtful thoughts. I had rested on my laurels after the first race; I had not trained hard enough the second time; I should have cut out alcohol a lot sooner; I was not improving.
There is something to be said for doing things for the sake of doing them and expecting nothing. When you expect nothing, you can hardly be disappointed, and you can certainly be pleasantly surprised.
I have had to adopt this mindset in my sales career. Most of the time, prospects say “no” to you in sales. Anyone who works in sales who says otherwise is either a liar, or perhaps they work at Google and sell essential functions like Gmail. The rest of us get “no” quite often.
I would be lying if I said that there are never times where the rejection really gets to me. Of course I expect to be successful and the outcome that I want is the one that is favorable to me. But there is a difference between having expectations and letting your emotions reside with your expectations.
When I did not do as well the second time in my race, perhaps it was true that I did not train as hard the second time. But my lack of training for the second race did not need to define me as a person. Just months before, I had never even run a half-marathon to begin with, and whatever expectations I had about doing so were still significantly more relaxed than the outcome I had the second time around. It was only based on a re-shifting of my own standards that I had allowed myself to let my own internal judge come out and tell me these negative thoughts.
But there are also other possibilities that might be true. For example, the second race day was particularly hot and humid, which might have explained the cramping. What is also true is that since that day, I have added more miles to my personal record and I have shaved off a significant amount of time. This raises the question: was the second race the “outcome” or just a part of the journey? There is no success without failure, and there is something to be said for enjoying the ride for the ride itself, not necessarily where the ride takes you.
The same is true for the conversations I have at work. Every time I do not succeed, is it an outcome or is “the” outcome? There are people who have said “no” to me no less than three times who are now my clients. What this means is that I did indeed gain something valuable along the way even if the outcome did not match my expectations – that I built a relationship with someone and left an impression of trust which eventually led them back to me.
Many times in our lives we find ourselves in the habit of deriving happiness from something that has not even happened yet. We work hard so that we can relax later, or so we can buy a certain car or have a certain type of house. Maybe it is because we want a certain promotion – which is usually the means towards some other end, like the aforementioned house, car, or early retirement. In these cases, not only do we seem to be deferring our happiness, but we also seem to be tying an intense amount of it to a very specific outcome, therefore risking ourselves an equally significant amount of pain.
Sometimes, for reasons unforeseen, we do not get the promotion we wanted even though we deserved it. Sometimes the housing market makes an unexpected turn and we do not wind up with the house we had dreamed of. Maybe a worldwide pandemic puts a crimp in our plans for that early retirement. And oftentimes, we may fall short of the time we were hoping for in the race.
But what remains true in all of these circumstances is something positive. Though we may not obtain the promotion, if we truly enjoy our work, we are grateful to have the job. Though the house may have one fewer bedroom or bathroom, we still become a homeowner with a roof over our heads, and it is certainly not a reflection on our work ethic. While early retirement sounds nice, a worldwide pandemic puts much greater problems into focus – primarily that there are people out there who are living paycheck to paycheck who are suffering much more immensely and for whom we would be best served to give our attention. And falling short of a desired time is but an arbitrary goal, a way we allow the critical ego in our brains a space and a voice to deliver an assessment of self that has absolutely nothing to do with the way the people around us are actually looking at us.
Attachment to outcomes is problematic because the outcome is generally a fleeting moment. I noticed when accomplishing a certain time in a race that I would be happy for a moment, but immediately turn my attention on to the next latest and greatest goal to one-up myself. This is such a sad way to live, constantly searching for new outcomes and tying one’s happiness and self-worth to them.
By being present – though it is easier said than done – we allow ourselves to find joy in things all the time. There is joy in the training run or in the process at work in which one advances their career. Being present creates an awareness that the outcomes we seek are but fleeting moments in our lives, oftentimes meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Now more than ever as we stay inside, we may find ourselves on edge and particularly fixated on the things we want. Perhaps it is an opportunity to be still, to expect nothing, and hope for the best.