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:
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?
Last year, while I was working on putting my life together after my mom’s passing, my best friend and Hiruko Co-Founder, Angela Booker and I started to talk about our dreams. We realized we both had goals and major projects on our plates, but we both pondered this crazy and scary question. What do we still dream of?
Growing up in a communist country with a pragmatic, tough, single mom, hope or faith were words we didn’t use much, if at all. We hoped that the government would turn the heat on when it was brutally cold outside, or that we’d be lucky to find toilet paper at the store. We had faith in our very close friends, and trusted that we could share a political joke once in a while, without fear of being turned in.
If necessity is the mother of invention, dreams are the fuel for an indomitable spirit. Somewhere, in my childhood I started to imagine. I (crazily) dreamed of being a spy, saving the world from mean dictators. Like many girls, I dreamed of being a famous singer and dancer. I also dreamed of moving to America and living in California. In 1989, six months before the collapse of the Eastern block we did come to America, and two years after that I found myself in California.
Nine years ago, my husband and I dreamed of opening a school for youth to learn to be confident, completely unstoppable, and madly in love with their own wonder, where movement, contemplative practice, and creativity work in synch, and are celebrated as essential components of holistic wellbeing. Hiruko Wellness opened its doors in 2005.
Last Sunday my trusted life coach and friend Stacy Parson, hosted our second ever “Dream Session”. The point of this time together is to play with what’s possible, and put things out into the universe, however outrageous or simple. I always find it a bit hard to start. Like a muscle that needs to be stretched, my imagination can be stiff and is guarded carefully by protective inner critics who work hard to keep me safe. I have to start with small dreams like a monthly date with my husband or eight hours of sleep at night.
The thing about dreams is this; once you start, you can’t stop. On my dream list are things like speaking at TED, going to Costa Rica, dreaming with Luca, writing books, drinking green juice daily, becoming vegan, competing in a Tai Chi tournament, visiting China. And the list keeps going.
It really does not matter if you actually see your dream become reality. Simply allowing yourself to picture the dream being real creates unexplainable shifts in energy, motivation, commitment, focus, love, and relationships. Some dreams are like shooting stars, they delight us briefly and in passing and fade before we see them shine. Other dreams have a life of their own, and they turn out way bigger, richer, bolder than we would have ever imagined. Both are great!
For now suspend your disbelief, and dare yourself to play with your imagination. What courageous, bold, inspired, funny, wacky, totally unrealistic crazy dreams do YOU have?