We are driven to reach as high as possible, both in terms of our social standing and in the ranking of our own abilities. This is a major driver of our struggle to succeed. It is easy to see why we are programed for this push as high social status and success has its rewards. We actually have a mechanism in our brains associated with the grading of our own self ranking.
After a little adjustment period, we all tend to be fairly happy with our ranking wherever we fall, with the constant push to move up the scale. Moving up usually brings a short time of happiness and satisfaction, a demotion is a bitch. The healthy process of settling in and dealing with a demotion involves developing some new respect for the people that have moved ahead of you. This concept seems to hold true with ranking of abilities as well as social rankings.
Following are a couple of examples of how I have, and am continuing to try to work through this.
2015 was a great year for sprint mountain bike racing. I had trained well and it all came together. At the Dirt crits, I seemed to be able to be first wheel into the woods fairly frequently, but found that my chances for success were much greater going in third wheel or so. The magic formula seemed to be right behind Mike Bobelak and just ahead of Sam Moore. I was extremely happy with that years results and started to think of myself as a bad ass mountain bike racer (while remaining extraordinarily humble, of course).
The 2016 dirt crits was the very first indication that something was wrong. Lary Purtle would say go (I love Larry’s sneaky way of doing that) and I would be going down the field mid pack at best. The rest of the race went no better as I would keep slipping back wheel after wheel, desperately grabbing on to each one as they passed. I was devastated! It is amazing how much so.
What the F#%. How do we get so wrapped up on such seemingly trivial matters. The answer of course is that we care about our little projects. We care a lot. That is what makes the challenge so meaningful.
I went through a period of unhappiness. I quickly started to change my attitude from “wow, I suck” to “wow, so and so, and so and so are really pretty kick ass racers.” I was simply adapting my expectations to the new order.
I also started to apply this strategy to simple ability in everyday life. I am trying to take some joy in the challenge of being able accomplish certain things, even though I didn’t give them much thought before as they were so easy.
A few months ago, I had predicted for myself that I might be in a wheelchair by the end of February, based on my rate of decline at that time. Of course this was a bummer, but that became my new expectation. Now, I am taking joy, on many days, by exceeding expectations, thus winning little daily lotteries.
In the end, of course, I don’t suggest to set low expectations and not to care about our projects that are meaningful to us. These challenges that we set for ourselves make life exciting and meaningful. The challenge is how to balance this. It is a double edge sword. On the one hand, it gives meaning, but it can easily tie us up into knots of anxiety. The key is finding the right mix of good stress but not letting it turn into unhappy anxiety and comparison. How to do that? You’re on your own.
I actually do find that I’m happier setting low, easily achievable goals and then smashing them than going up against more aggressive goals. But there’s very little alpha in my mental makeup.