Every man I have spoken with in this journey so far is considered highly successful in the world of high performance sport and academia. With that level of achievement comes a perceived expectation to keep delivering in their career and to be happy doing it. And if they don't deliver it's their own fault:
"I perceived not achieving as a failure which falls all on me because I have the prerequisite tools to achieve those things. I've felt pressure to achieve the markers of what people perceive as me being really good at... so I was inevitably going to fail which drove me into a hole."
There is an assumption that happiness comes with success. Personally I fell head first into that trap within my career and was baffled at why the shine of each position I had began to wear off after a while. This plagued me for much of my life, up until I was 36 years old. I'd assume blame on the people, the environments and the organisations for being the cause of my frustrations.
I recall the time when I was supporting the British divers towards the London 2012 Olympic games. I loved the people I worked with, yet I couldn't shake the sense of something not being right. On one level I considered diving to be a "blue ribbon" sport, meaning that it always sounded good when I told people what I did. An essential part of my job allowing me to get validation.
But I didn't know why it wasn't how I wanted it to be. I was always searching for a reason to pin the blame of my unhappiness. I remember seeing a used plaster floating in the dive pool and thinking "this isn't a world-class environment." How lost I was back then!
Of course, in truth, all of that sense of not being right was within me and the stories I was so defined by. It didn't matter what environment I was in, my calibration for success and happiness were so wildly skewed that it was never going to lead to personal fulfilment for me. It seems that without checking oneself, we get pulled along by the perception of what we think other people value (success). And when we do that, no amount of achievement is ever going to provide long term fulfilment (happiness). This was certainly true for me and is true for many of the men with whom I have spoken.
"I'm always planning and chasing what's in front at the expense of being here now."
"I've been chasing the dragon in my career, I feel weighed down by the pressures of meeting KPI's, certain figures, numbers and the need to be held accountable, the actions in sport don't represent the gesture of holistic culture."
"It's taken me 10 years to realise I get more joy from working with development pathway than with the top world class level. Many of my friends are married with children and I'm not even there yet - I've been chasing a rabbit for so long career-wise."
"I felt panic that I didn't know what else I needed to do to try and be achieving the "thing." Panic of not knowing how to be where I was supposed to be - world class and respected of the "thing," how do I stop myself being on this endless chase... And also feeling like a failure and just not good enough?"
"I thought for me to be happy I need to get into a high performance role because I felt I've done so much work. For nearly 6 years I went into a spiral of isolation from a lot of people. For years I wasn't happy but from the outside looking in these top jobs look fantastic - you've got the kit, the organisation and the fancy toys. I do enjoy the roles and love who I work with but at the same time I'm still thinking there is something missing which is where I am now. It's like I'm chasing a rabbit and I now sense I'm never going to catch it because the rabbit doesn't even exist."
I remember the Team GB motto of the London 2012 Olympic Games: "Better Never Stops." I felt completely aligned with that saying on such a fundamental level. Most likely because as I've described in this series my lack of self worth craved any opportunity to be validated. But I never gave "Better Never Stops" any real thought. If that is true - why is that true? And what does better actually mean? And by what or whose standards does that better measure up against?
Of course better can be broken down through the lens of which we all know so very well. The labels of world class, conferences spoken at, number of medals won, KPI achievement and papers published. But at what point do we become aware of the limited and restrictive nature of these constructs of our mind? Because many of these highly experienced successful men I've spoken with have reached a point of enough.
"I want help to be able to find my visceral feelings and actually believe that all of this shit isn't real."
"I've always been chasing something, I feel nothing I ever do will be good enough. I never celebrate my wins either small or big. Because I'm always chasing something better I'm never fulfilled with what I've got. It has a knock on impact on my confidence and enjoyment of my life, I'm only ever one mistake away from coming from a high to crashing back down."
"I don't think people appreciate how much free time I give up to make someone's son or daughter better - it comes at the expense of me not having a life. I don't really have a life outside of my actual role of what I do."
"I can't stop thinking about what didn't go to plan or what's next, why can I pat everyone else on the back but I can't do it for myself, I've massively struggled getting too emotionally involved in certain projects and then really getting let down and hurt when they don't come to fruition or when someone doesn't share my love, enthusiasm or passion for it. I also have an inability to find a balance between work and life because I'm defined by what I do."
"I feel a constant pressure and underlying stress, I'm switched on a lot of the time thinking about the next step."
The expression of creativity and innovation is within all of us. I've come to understand through experience that without the ability to listen to the natural ebb and flow of these states, we end up frustrated, fatigued and unhappy. When we learn to skilfully use these states they fuel and lift us into an effortless balance. And balance is the key word here because it describes the dance between our focus of striving and our practice of acceptance. Our long term vision and being present in this moment.
"I hate the terminology of high performance - I think people are people. You make someone better and then the "performance" areas in their life become better."
Each of us is a unique person with physical, emotional and spiritual needs. And the beauty is that we are all fallible and flawed in some way. I believe that is part of the reason why we feel the need to make our mark in our career so loud that everyone hears it. Because we are looking to make up for those parts of us that have been unavoidably bumped by life. We just haven't been given a road map to understand how we manage those bumps.
I sense among men, and certainly with my own journey, the magnitude of unfulfilled feelings successful people experience is down to looking outside for validation. At the core level validation provides acceptance, belonging and safety. Maybe the "Better Never Stops" is us lost on the roundabout of trying to soothe or fill those deeper parts of us. Yet we aren't aware that we're pouring water into a colander instead of a glass. What if we can reconnect and understand our own being from within?
This comes back to personal mastery and your inner work and outer action. Living and working purposefully towards a vision, in alignment with your values and in a state of constant learning about yourself and the reality in which you exist.
Once we become aware of and accept that we are in a place of discomfort, we can begin our transformation. This begins with ourselves, which ripples out to our relationships, our communities and with leaving the world a little bit better than we found it. But as the Talmudic traditions say so beautifully:
"We aren't expected to finish the work, but we aren't excused from it."
"I want to go from a place of always searching for more and better to a place of peace and presence so that I can be fulfilled and satisfied in my life and with the people I love."
The example above is one description of what one of the men I've spoken with is seeking. Notice how it's not about things, places or being known for something. He describes core emotional feelings. He recognises where he is and he knows what he wants to feel instead. Here are a few steps to help your own process:
Spend some time quietly thinking AND feeling what you notice:
And if you would like to participate in this research I’d love to talk. Simply book a time that suits you using the link to My Calendar.
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