A telling irony about Olympians is that aside from the jubilant gold medalists, the men and women who score bronze medals nearly always appear happier than those athletes who get silver.
So much so that after the 1992 Olympics, researchers Victoria Medvec, Schott Madey and Thomas Gilovich published a paper on this subject called “When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists.”
Based on their evaluation of photographs of athletes on the medal stand and also of post-competition audio interviews, they not only concluded that bronze medal winners—like synchronized divers Daniel Goodfellow and Tom Daley, above—tended to be happier than silver medalists, but also that the contrast in attitude toward winning greatly affects one’s overall well-being: “The authors attribute these results to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal.”
When one fully aspires toward “gold” in any aspect of life and falls short, it can be destabilizing. But really, what does it mean to “fully aspire toward gold,” what the hell is “gold,” and what does it actually mean to fall short?
In other words, coming in third is still great and a cause for celebration, and even jubilance… and a far better alternative than not medaling at all. Whereas the silver medalist—especially if he or she lost by a hair’s breath or some inhumanly indecipherable margin—is plagued with the woulda coulda shoulda syndrome… if they are lucky.
But if they’re human, which they obviously are, they might also be plagued with thoughts such as “I’m just as good as that gold medalist but because I didn’t win I won’t reap any of the benefits that come with winning.” Or “I worked harder and I’m stronger than the winner but because X, now I’m the loser.” And of course, if we continue imagining these all too human thoughts, it can and often does lead to self-incrimination, self-hatred, depression and/or a diminished sense of joie de vivre.
When one fully aspires toward “gold” in any aspect of life and falls short, it can certainly and understandably be destabilizing. But really, what does it mean to “fully aspire toward gold” and for that matter, what the hell is “gold,” and what does it actually mean to fall short?
In sports, all these questions have fairly clear and definite answers: If you are, say, an NBA player you might fully aspire to win an NBA Championship ring. That’s “the gold” in the NBA world. To fall short of that, to lose in the playoffs—or not even make the playoffs—is also very clear.
But life aspirations and goals are rarely so binarily calculated. And thank God! Trust me, that’s a good thing. How much money does it take to “win”? How much less to “fall short”?
In my example above about an NBA player, we have to step back a moment and realize that just being an NBA player at all is a massive achievement. Despite all their talent and hard work and genetic good fortune, they still have to, or should, profusely thank the universe for lining up all the lucky stars that allowed them to be found, discovered and appreciated—and to be alive at this moment in history and living in a location that values what it is that they can do.
As the amazingly financially successful Warren Buffett put it: “I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.”
Although Warren Buffett has clearly “won gold” within the “making money” game just as Andy Murray won gold when he beat Milos Raonic to win the most recent Wimbledon Championship, we tend to conflate these achievements with winning gold in the game of life. Perhaps this is why tabloid news and entertainment is so popular: They allow people to gloat over the shortcomings of those who have erroneously been placed on god-like pedestals.
The problem with writing and talking about the merits of not winning gold or aspiring for gold—or some perceived state of ultra-excellence—is that it’s easy to be misconstrued as making an excuse for one’s personal failures. As guilty as I may be at times of indulging in freudenschade, I really am trying to speak to a larger phenomenon. Winning is great, excellence is spectacular, but many aspects of our “winner take all” culture are troubling.
When Charlie Sheen, in the midst of his public psychotic breakdown, started bleating “Winning!!” it instantly became a mini-meme and T-shirt logo. In a strange way, it connoted some perverted truth that here was living proof that a handsome, wealthy, successful actor, bon vivant and voracious consumer of all things pleasurable (especially abundant sex and drugs) could and did exist, despite his untoward behavior. That even while beelining into Icarus’ proverbial molten sun, our gold medalist in all things material and sensual was defying all rules for “regular” people. This, of course, was before his admission that he was dangerously, insanely sleep-deprived and drug-addled, and that he had HIV. “Winning” became a war cry for transgressing decency and getting away with it.
In a similarly bigger-than-life media-infused manner, the corollary to Donald Trump’s iconic phrase “You’re fired!” is… “You’re a loser.” Meaning that if you’re fired, or if you don’t “make it,” or if you don’t “win,” then you are, across the board, a loser. And of course, irony of ironies, it is nearly impossible to imagine Donald Trump in the privacy of his own inner Trumpdom not considering the majority of his diehard constituents as “losers.” After all, they are not minorities and still are neither educated nor wealthy. Using the Trumpian scale, how could they be anything other than “losers”?
After the London Olympics four years ago, Psychology Today published an article, “Why Do We Have an Obsession With Winning? Seeing the world as ‘winners and losers’ is unhealthy”. Among other things, it is about the dysfunction of this mentality: “Having a winning mindset has its obvious advantages. It generates intensity, determination and effort, and often success can fill our lives with meaning. But a competitive mindset has serious problems. The first is pitting America against the rest of the world, and Americans aggressively promoting the notion that they are ‘the best.’ This generates constant tension and stress in life. The second is [that] winning never produces permanent satisfaction, because once the victory is attained, the next one is quickly sought after.”
Most endeavors don’t have a neat, single “gold medal” end to them. Most careers, like life itself, are a continuous process. And feeling like you’re a failure unless you’re in gold medal contention is crazy.
I remember it very clearly, at 18 years of age I literally said to myself: “I want to win the National Book Award for poetry before I am 21.” At the time I hadn’t written a complete book of poems, nor had many of my poems even been published. And I was never “fully committed.” I didn’t stop everything and work 24/7 on my poetry. But having that “gold medal” goal in front of me, as amazingly unrealistic as it was, at least inspired me to do some work on my poetry. I never won the National Book Award for poetry but I did eventually get poems published in prominent poetry journals.
I also recall overhearing a student of mine, in a screenwriting class I taught at an esteemed university, saying to a friend, “If I don’t make a big screenplay sale by the time I’m 28, I’m going back to school to get my MBA.” I suggested to him that he consider moving his goal posts: Perhaps he should consider making his goal writing anything that he even half-likes before he dies, and still get his MBA. If wealth was his goal, then writing screenplays or any kind of writing was probably the wrong path.
Most endeavors don’t have a neat, single “gold medal” end to them. Most careers, like life itself, are a continuous process. And feeling like you’re a failure unless you’re in gold medal contention is crazy. Still, this attitude seems to have dripped into many areas of life.
People place unrealistic gold medal goals and standards on their relationships and marriages. When they aren’t able to attain or sustain this standard, they deem the relationship a failure.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, psychology professor Eli J. Finkel wrote: “Marriage, then, has increasingly become an ‘all or nothing’ proposition. This conclusion not only challenges the conventional opposition between marital decline and marital resilience; but it also has implications for policy makers looking to bolster the institution of marriage—and for individual Americans seeking to strengthen their own relationships.”
So even in relationships, for the gold-obsessed person where gold isn’t even realistic, silver too doesn’t cut it. If things are not always great, if some romantic ideal or initially felt passion isn’t sustained… in short, if one’s gold-standard expectations are not met in an all-or-nothing fashion, it’s nothing. Contrary to popular belief, half of all marriages don’t end in divorce, but one-third still do.
A number of years ago, I saw New Yorker cartoon picturing a “Hollywood” dude—sunglasses, ponytail, attitude—seated at a trendy eatery, pontificating to a cool-looking woman: “Face it—in this town, either you’re a star or you’re just another brown dwarf.”
At that moment, I felt a deep gong chuckle of inner recognition. That sense of hearing a joke (or a truth) and your whole body seems to resonate with a sense of having a secret, earned understanding. It becomes personal on levels you feel are deeper for you than for others who are not in the knowing (wink, wink) club. It hits your funny bone of truth, something that you knew but until that moment you didn’t realize you knew.
There it was, a comment about the film industry in Los Angeles: how even the countless minions of “successful types,” like the clichéd agents and producers portrayed in the cartoon—successful enough to eat and drink in a trendy and expensive in-spot—still feel themselves part of a pack of loser wannabes constantly struggling to gain some sort of secure foothold that would tiddlywink them into the orbit of the mythical superstar.
Over the next few years that observation continued to sink in, that I was actually a part of an industry where many people felt this way, including me: inadequate, unsuccessful, craving the glow and adoration from a superstar—in short, a brown dwarf. That gong kept resonating and gaining timber and vibrational velocity. I was beginning to see that this all-or-nothing mentality was sinking inside of me and sinking me; that it had already pervaded many aspects of life and hovering over my perception like a dark cloud.
And I made the decision that this was no way to live. I yanked that shroud away. I still strive for “success.” I still work hard. I still admire the gold-medal winners. But frankly, I am just grateful that I’m alive and that my family and I pretty much have our health. That’s a moment-to-moment bronze, silver, and gold medal all wrapped up into one.