Fool’s Gold: The Emptiness in My Athletic Success

Here’s a little personal story for you.

Many of you know that I have a long history in endurance sports. I’ve completed numerous long distance running and triathlon events, many of them with top of the top quartile results. Race after race I proved that I had the ability to set a goal, train hard, and demonstrate improvements. I was driven by an inner competitive spirit to do more, try harder, go longer, and be faster.

For more than a decade my performance in my training and racing was a massive component of my definition of success. I felt freaking fabulous about my achievements! And, as other people expressed awe and amazement at all that I achieved, I felt even better. I LOVED my success!

Over the years though, there was something stirring under the “hard core” surface. My inner compass for fulfillment and happiness was spinning and sputtering. I just didn’t realize it.

As I stepped up to and kicked the asses of new and bigger challenges, I was becoming more aware of what felt like a growing gap within me. In spite of my additional successes, I wasn’t any more satisfied or any happier. I was checking the boxes on my race list, collecting finisher’s medals. And I wasn’t fulfilled.

I dismissed all of this, though. I convinced myself that this was me being lazy, getting soft, or—horror of horrors—that I might be a quitter! I pushed through. I hardened up. Time after time I decided that what I needed was a bigger goal, or maybe more goals, anything to keep me pushing myself.

All the while, that compass was still trying to find purchase on true north. My needs were growing more acute. But I still pressed on. Turning away from that inner space of emptiness. Yet I continued to fill my pockets with fool’s gold.

It took years (and a significant trauma) to wake me up from the numbed out manner in which I was habitually seeking meaningful success in my life…and not finding it. I began to consider some key questions:

  • What if one more finish line won’t actually deliver the depth of fulfillment and happiness that I seek?
  • What if the goals that I need to work toward and reach are of a different variety altogether?
  • What if I continue to set these types of goals only because it’s what I’ve done for so long and I don’t know what else there is?
  • What if I’m not listening to what my inner drive really wants to achieve?
  • What if a true expansion of my success and fulfillment is only possible if I expand my possibilities and opportunities?

My point with this story is NOT to say that big fat athletic goals like these aren’t great motivators, that they aren’t a component of a successful and fulfilled life, or that they’re not fun. (Holy crap! There is hardly a better feeling than running down the last 50 yards of an Ironman to the cheers of hundreds of people. Seriously!) And there really is an amazing level of satisfaction that comes from committing to a goal so thoroughly and intently in training, and then realizing you can do something seemingly insane on race day. It IS gratifying. It IS fulfilling. Hell yes it is!

I bring up this story to draw a comparison. The same thing happens to us in our pursuit of professional success.

We get conditioned to seek growth in our success at work in ways that may actually stifle our full potential for fulfillment. We lose touch with (or never allow ourselves to know) what will truly satisfy our needs for meaning and purpose in our work. We burn ourselves out working harder and harder to be better, get recognized, land that next promotion, and we don’t recognize the discontent that bubbles under the surface.

Just like I had to, we all must be willing to look at the ways in which our current endeavors or potential future opportunities align with our requirements. (That, of course, requires that we know what we need in the first place…another topic for another time)

Just like I did, we must consider whether our greatest challenge and satisfaction might actually come through roles or opportunities that aren’t directly on the paths with which we’re so familiar.

Just like I had to, we must courageously face our possible outgrowing of what once served so well and accept the challenge of growth in new ways.

And, though I did not do this, we must be willing to act upon our most immediate inclination that we have stagnated in our success.

Take it from me. Running the race to “just finish” is not fulfilling. Sure you get a medal, and maybe a t-shirt, but beware:  fools gold doesn’t fool you for long.

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Could your greatest success and fulfillment lie uncovered? If you have any sense that something–anything–is missing let’s talk. Don’t leave your ultimate, most meaningful work and life untapped! Get in touch today! liv@livsyptak.com or 303.912.5726.

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