A couple of years ago, I met a girl from my neighbourhood following her HSC results. She seemed to be down in the dumps. Assuming that she’d failed or, at the most, performed badly, I inquired as gently as I could about the cause of her gloominess. She was a bit uncomfortable at first; slowly, she gave in. Her unusual one-liner jolted me. She said she was embarrassed to face her mathematics teacher, because she had obtained a “mere” 98 out of the maximum of 100 in her mathematics paper. A “paltry” 98!
I was, so far, under the impression that with grades such as this, students would be rejoicing, celebrating, and even distributing sweets to one and all. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
In another instance, a prominent doctor told me that he just discharged a 15-year-old girl, who was admitted on the previous day, because she had apparently consumed rat poison. Why? She had failed in her 10th Standard [CBSE] exams. Sounds familiar?
Each year thousands of students across India take their own lives because they fail to make the grade they expect, or strive for. So all-encompassing is this trend that a CNN.com report labelled India as “obsessed with numbers.”
Pressure is all-pervasive
The pressure to perform is not limited to only academics. Working professionals, sportspersons, artists, or writers – no one is spared. Often, the target to “win” is set by others. But, self-imposed pressure to win at any cost is not uncommon either. Young girls starve themselves to stay slim; young boys pop steroid pills to build a Schwarzenegger-like physique. Everyone is either pushing or being pushed to do better than someone else who they may not even know!
This all-pervasive emphasis on winning at any cost results in tremendous anxiety. Everyone is striving, yes. Worse, no one is arriving. Because, no one has the time or inclination to stop and think what really constitutes life.
We only produce outcomes
All performance measures are relative. Absolute measurement of performance is impossible. If measures are relative, how can results be absolute? Wouldn’t it be better for us to think in terms of outcomes rather than winning and losing, failing or succeeding? Is it also, therefore, not better to think of goals as desired outcomes? Think aloud: when your pursuit changes from winning to doing, you often produce better outcomes.
One of the most oft-observed examples of this phenomenon is found in sports. For instance, in a tennis match between a top-seeded star and an unknown player, the latter enters the court without any expectation.
Because, winning does not occur to the “underdog” who plays her natural game and surprises her opponent – and, herself – by winning the first set. Suddenly, winning becomes a possibility. Her attention is now focussed on winning, not playing. And, what happens? You guessed it right – she loses.
From striving to arriving
Striving does not guarantee the desired outcome, but it always guarantees stress. An eye on winning makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand. We are not advocating you to disregard your goals and become aimless. What we are saying is that being focussed on doing tasks well, and enjoying it while you do it, is a much better way of living than trying to compete and succeed. When you adopt this realistic approach, you will find that your anxiety to win will transform into healthy concern for the good of all. According to psychologists, concern is good stress; it motivates individuals to do tasks well. Anxiety, on the other hand, is bad stress and harmful to the process of accomplishing any task. It also hinders your ability to work to your potential.
When we strive, no matter how much we own, or how much we achieve, we always want more – in the process, we never arrive. Striving is focused on the future, while doing is about enjoying the present-moment. Striving individuals are always thinking that they will be happy, successful, fulfilled when they get this job, that house, and so on. In contrast, people who are “now-oriented” succeed every day. For them, success is not about some outcome in the future, but how richly they live in the present, or how well they do what they are supposed to do.
It is, therefore, important to realise that success is not something you get from a job. Success is something you bring to your job, or career.
No one ever loses
It is worthwhile to remember that benchmarks are only guidelines. Simply because our actions do not manifest into what we, or others, have benchmarked as success, it does not mean we have failed. We do not ever fail or pass. We do not ever win or lose. We only produce outcomes. If we are unsatisfied with the outcome, we can resolve to do better next time. Thinking in terms of failure produces stress. It immobilises us and also prevents us from attempting again.
To twirl an age-old dictum: it is always better to put the horse before the cart, not the cart before the horse. This is what the pleasure of doing, and not just winning, is all about.
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