This weekend I had the privilege and honor to compete at the United States Strongman’s National Championships, the largest and most important event for the sport in which I compete. This began as a dream of mine 14 months ago when I suffered a disappointing loss in a regional qualifying contest in March of 2021. After this defeat, I resolved that I would compete and win the 2022 National Championships, the event which just took place. I dedicated myself to making this dream into a reality with relentless passion, effort, discipline, concentration, and sheer power of will for the next 14 months.
I did not win.
Specifically, I placed 13th out of 31 competitors in my class. Not bad, but far from the podium which I will confess that I had fantasized about often.
And yet, I am still happy.
I am happy because true happiness is not built on external accolades like whether we win or lose a competition. When I won first in my extremely competitive qualifying regional contest earlier this year, I was overjoyed. For days after the event I walked around beaming with pride, responding with joy to all of the congratulatory texts, calls, emails, and comments, and I felt like I was the king of the world. This was the same contest I had left humbled, humiliated, and seriously injured just last year. But after just a few short days, the feeling faded, life returned to normal, and I found myself at more-or-less my baseline level of happiness. Thanks to much effort and work, that baseline level of happiness is now pretty good, better than it ever has been perhaps, but the point is to demonstrate that even a tremendously proud and joyous win will only leave us temporarily elated, but not lastingly happy. True happiness does not come from winning, nor should true sorrow come from losing.
I remain happy not merely in-spite-of but also because of this loss. How do we embrace defeat and learn how to make even a humbling experience into an opportunity for growth and happiness? The stoics have an idea called “Amor Fati” a love of fate, which is the idea that because so much of what life entails is beyond our control we must learn to at least accept if not love whatever may happen. Though disappointed in the outcome I am loving and appreciating what may be gained from losing and from not achieving my desired outcome. The loss gives me the opportunity to accept defeat with graciousness. Perhaps Life, God, the Universe, or pure chance felt that it was more important for me to experience the temporary pain of defeat, as a chance to strengthen my resolve and to practice what I preach. To embrace what may come and to be happy in spite of whatever may happen, focusing on my own reaction and decisions rather than my perception or feelings about whatever may have happened.
By not winning I given the opportunity to enjoy renewed enthusiasm stemming from making such great progress and realizing that I can push myself even harder and grow even more capable at my craft. I am happy at this opportunity to recognize that while I made great strides that I must and that I can achieve even more.
This loss gives me the opportunity to focus on systems rather than merely on results. The systems I had in place like discipline, commitment, effort, and intensity were successful and will be valuable tools at my disposal not just for future athletic endeavors but of all worthwile pursuits in my life. While the final result was not the desired outcome, these systems enabled me to achieve tremendous growth and to achieve unprecedented personal capabilities. 12 weeks ago I was simply incapable of performing 2 of the 5 events. By committing myself to these ideals and winning systems, I was able to perform a lifetime best in 3 of the 5 events performed. If I were to focus merely on results, I would miss the opportunity to be happy over the impressive amount of growth realized by committing to systems.
Yes, I am disappointed that I didn’t win. Who likes losing? But when I reflect on this event, I realize that even if I had performed to the best of my abilities and not made a few costly errors in technique or focus such as I did, I still would not have won. The winner was that good and that much better than me and of most of the field. Why should I be sorrowful that I did not win? Rather than lament defeat I intend to continue committing to the systems that bring results and true happiness and to commit myself to continued progress.
Some may say that my acceptance of defeat or nonchalant attitude is precisely the reason I din’t win. That winning is the only acceptable result and those who are happy with not winning will be losers for life. I disagree, and whether that keeps me from ever reaching the highest form of victory in winning a national championship (in the context of my sport of course) or not, I know that I will remain happy, and to me that is the ultimate victory. Think about how many successful or accomplished people you know who are empty and sad. Success does not lead to fulfillment or happiness.
“Comparison is the Thief of JoyEleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” If I compare my performance to others then my joy is robbed as I realize that 12 people did better than I did. When I don’t compare, I am able to appreciate that I completed many impressive feats which I had never believed myself capable. My joy and happiness comes from being proud of what I was able to do through concentration, discipline, and will. Sometimes in sports there are winner-take-all zero-sum games with clear winners and losers. But in strongman as in life, this is rarely so. There is room for all of us to experience personal victory and happiness when we don’t compare.
I share this post as both a form of ownership in accepting responsibility for the consequences of my actions, for the costly mistakes made that diminished my performance, but more importantly so that readers may recognize a real world scenario for how to put the philosophy of happiness and positive psychology into action. It is realistic to say that 5 years ago such a humbling moment would have crushed me and had me questioning my value as a human and debating if life was not worth living. Because of the reading, research, and learning committed to the study and understanding of happiness, I have elevated the baseline level of my emotional and psychological state so that even under such circumstances I am able to remain happy not merely in-spite-of, but because of my losses.
I trust that you can do the same and I will happily assist you if I may.