The Curse of Finishing Second (and Five Habits of Happy High-Achievers)

After finishing third in the men’s 100 meter race at the Rio Olympics this week, bronze medalist Andre de Grasse excitedly embraced Usain Bolt, who had taken the gold. While Andre and Usain were hugging it up, silver medalist Justin Gatlin looked less than thrilled, lost, no doubt, in counterfactual thought about “what might have been.”

As Seinfeld points out, “If you win the gold, you feel good. If you win the bronze, you think, well, at least I got something. But if you win that silver it’s like, “Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first…of that group. You’re the number-one loser.”

While it’s hard, as a spectator, to imagine feeling disappointed at “only” winning a silver medal, at the same time, we can kind of understand how, after years of training and sacrifice, falling (milli)seconds short of the gold could feel like total failure.

That crucial difference in perspective is why “on average, bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists,” says Victoria Medvec, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, whose 1995 research studied the disconnect between performance and satisfaction. “Those who perform objectively better can actually feel worse than those who they outperformed.” (In fact, a 2006 study showed that none of the silver medalists smiled immediately after the event.)

Of course, there are high-performers in all arenas – business, medicine, performing arts – who are never quite satisfied with their impressive achievements. They fixate on their flaws, lament their missteps and seemingly can’t savor and enjoy the fruits of their labor. So, what’s the point of achievement again?

The secret to happy goal attainment comes down to where you put your focus. Here are five ways Happy High-Achievers – let’s call them “HaHAs” – play hard and stay happy:

1. HaHAs keep their balance. There’s no glory in pushing to the edge, sacrificing proper nutrition, sufficient sleep and movie night, if it means you’re going to collapse, be out of commission and have disgruntled friends and family. HaHAs keep an ongoing cost-benefit analysis and remember their core values (that Tesla Model S isn’t going to come visit you in the hospital) to make sure they don’t sacrifice what’s really important.

2. HaHAs enjoy the process. I know, you know that. To focus on the fleeting moments on the podium (finish line, successful exit) and expect them to feel like sufficient reward for your months/years of hard work is a recipe for eternal dissatisfaction. But when the process gets tedious or painful, we need to remind ourselves that the purpose of a goal is for what we’ll learn and the joy in striving for it.

MMA fighter Ronda Rousey says: “Most people focus on the wrong thing; they focus on the result, not the process. The process is the sacrifice; it’s all the hard parts – the sweat, the pain, the tears, the losses. You make the sacrifices anyway. You learn to enjoy them, or at least embrace them. In the end, it is the sacrifices that must fulfill you.”

3. HaHAs pursue excellence, not perfection. Can we just agree already that perfection does not exist — and if it does (which it doesn’t), it’s subjective and a constantly moving target? HaHAs know this and refuse to hold themselves up to some impossible standard. They don’t compare themselves relentlessly to others or pay attention to their inner critic.Instead, they strive for excellence, focusing simply on doing better than they did the day before.

4. HaHAs focus on what they can control. And they spend minimal time focusing on what they can’t. When results fall short, HaHAs don’t make excuses or blame the client, the economy or Donald Trump. They don’t constantly look in the rear-view mirror and beat themselves up for a result that is past and done. Whatever happens, HaHAs forgive (themselves and others), show gratitude and find a way to reframe the situation so they can feel good and move forward.

5. HaHAs are doin’ it for themselves. That’s because working toward a goal solely to satisfy someone else’s expectations – whether your parents, fans or society – is destined to create a feeling of gnawing emptiness and “is this all there is?”

“I mean this in a positive way, but she doesn’t care,” says Bruce Gemmell who coaches swimming phenomenon Katie Ledecky who’s raised all kinds of expectations with her stellar performance: “She doesn’t care it’s the Olympics any more than she cares if it’s a championship meet at home, any more than she cares if it’s her high school championship. She gets excited about all of them.”

Conversely, no matter how a choice of action might seem to an outsider (“What do you mean you don’t want the promotion?!”), HaHAs have figured out which accomplishments give them the greatest satisfaction in practice – not just in theory – and they stay true to themselves.

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