In bowling, the area of the lane where balls are thrown is called a track. On both sides of the track is the gutter. When kids bowl, parents who eagerly want their kids to have a fun experience, or who want to avoid meltdowns at all costs and have thirty minutes of peace (this is me) can ask for a bumper to be installed to keep the balls out of the gutter and on track.
In our game called “life”, most of us are like kids; we need bumpers to stay on track. For most of us (and sadly our kids too), our corrective bumpers are competition, comparison and metrics. We compete for grades, market share, medals, recognition, varsity teams, jobs, and a spot in a top school. We compare products, features, people, candidates, companies, policies, slogans, parenting styles, schools. We keep track of money, salary, revenue, results, followers, calories, pounds, email subscribers, and GPAs.
In his daily blog, Seth Godin’s recent question “What are you competing on?” made me pause. I’ve always been overachieving, ambitious, competitive, and driven. Not so much because those were qualities I consciously chose for myself, but more so because those were the bumpers that were deployed for me growing up by my mom, or teachers, or within the environment in which I grew up. I’m not judging, but simply stating what is. Competition is so much a part of me that I don’t pause to observe or examine it. It’s a bit like flossing my teeth without looking in the mirror. I can feel my way around with my eyes closed.
When a swimmer competes, her every day goal is to beat the time she set the day before. When a martial artist competes, he pushes to make every kick faster, more controlled, and more precise and impactful than the kick before. But what happens when you take a close look at yourself and realize that what you’ve been competing on sucks the life out of you?
My whole life I’ve competed for significance. Everything I’ve done has been to prove to others and to myself that who I am and what I do matters, that I am lovable, worthy, and important. That what I do has merit, power, impact, endurance, and that it can withstand the test of time. That, no matter what, at some point in the future, that one pebble I throw in the Universal pond, would create a ripple that would somehow withstand the test of time, and would keep on creating ripples. And of course the insanity of it has always been that the more I tried to be significant, the more insignificant I’ve felt. No matter how hard I worked, I would still fail at pleasing someone, whether a customer at work, or my kids or my honey, or inevitably myself.
There are life experiences, fears, or stories I’ve created about those experiences that are at the core of my quest for significance. Fear of being left behind, abandoned, forgotten, voiceless, disconnected, and the fear of the inevitable end itself. The fear of being insignificant pushed me to compete every day towards significance. And when that is at the core of it all, comparison and metrics are the worst corrective bumpers. Because to compare one’s significance is a sure way to end up in a dark rabbit hole with no end, and to measure it, is in itself a prescription to slowly dying. What is significant? Having touched the lives of my children, or other people? How many people; one, two, ten, one thousand? Living a financially rewarding life, volunteering my time, giving of myself and my resources? What quantity, or number soothes the fear of being forgotten when gone?
Shortly before I turned forty, my life hit a wall. My mother died quickly after a six month battle with cancer. I was so afraid of dying, I was afraid to go to sleep. So I didn’t. I would ask my husband to hold me in his lap while I was sleeping, and would ask him to wake me up if he thought I was falling asleep too deeply. “If you think I’m dying, please wake me up”, I’d say.
The work I did to crawl out of the dark hole of anxiety and fear is the subject of another post. It took therapy, prayer, meditation, reading, journaling, support from generous friends, an immensely loving and patient husband and son, and the birth of my daughter. I adopted a personal mantra Let Go, Find Wonder. I gave myself permission to worry less, let go of perfection, and attachment to certain type of outcomes or results. I tried on the idea that, in the long term, I am and will be insignificant but that in each moment – now – I am hugely significant, to myself and to my young children.
I’m not completely transformed. Not yet. I still catch myself comparing something I do, something I write, or draw and questioning whether it matters or if it will ever matter “enough”. But that moment of inspection is brief and powerless.
I’m still extremely competitive. But I’ve changed my game. I now compete on Faith and Self Acceptance. When I compete on Faith, every day I ask what else could I do or who would I be if I had more faith than the day before? What would open if I had more faith in people, moments, intentions, God? And how can I accept myself just a bit more than then day before?
If you also compete on significance and you are ready to find a new game, here are a few suggestions from my journey:
- The quest for significance is itself insignificant and (hugely) stressful. Can you stop playing this game?
- Choose to see the light; you can choose to be happy and optimistic, even when the circumstances around you seem to say you shouldn’t. What small choice can you make today that feels uplifting?
- Take a close look at your fears. Be with them. Make a list, make it long, and let it breathe. When you are done either let the fears go, one by one, or make some kind of plan to address them. (Have some faith. You can do this. Ask for help.)
- Stop trying to be significant. Instead, just BE.
- Be significant in your own life (I really mean YOUR own. Not your kids’, your parents’, your spouse’s). Stop trying to make a significant impact in other people’s lives before you master the art of making a significant impact in your own (accept, heal, love).
- Change your corrective bumpers. Other than competition, comparison and metrics what else can correct your course? Values, intentions, prayers, people who love you and whom you love?
Seth Godin writes, “In any competitive market, be prepared to invest your heart and soul and focus on the thing you compete on. Might as well choose something you can live with, a practice that allows you to thrive.”
I’ve finally chosen something that delights my soul. How about you?