How Do You Handle Success? (I Suck At It)

by Nate St. Pierre on August 20, 2011

The coach of a pro football team has one goal: to win the Superbowl. He works diligently and tirelessly, for months on end, to accomplish this. From offseason (there is no offseason), to preseason, to regular season, to playoffs, all the way to Superbowl Sunday, he takes care of business. He worries about absolutely everything on the team – that’s his job, and he does it well.

Let’s say he does it so well that his team does win the Superbowl. The final whistle blows, confetti rains down, thousands of fans scream, hundreds of players and press swarm the field. After the trophy presentation, the team retires to the locker room, where the coach sums of the entire year in a congratulatory speech. For the team, nine months of gut-wrenching work at an elite level come to an end, and they finish as the best of the best. Champagne flows, players shout and smile and cry and hug and celebrate long into the night. The coach celebrates with them, victorious with his team on the final Sunday of the season.

He takes Monday off, a welcome and well-earned day of complete rest. He enjoys time with his family. He has a nice dinner with his wife. He goes to bed happy, but with nagging thoughts beginning to cloud his mind.

Tuesday morning he’s back to work, designing his strategy to win the Superbowl again next season, which for him starts . . . now. There is no offseason. He wants the rest of the team to take their long vacations, to enjoy their time away, to give their minds and bodies a rest. They deserve it. But he has a job to do, and he does it well. A brief moment of celebration is all he’ll allow, and then it’s back to business.

We’ve seen this story unfold time and time again in pro sports, haven’t we? It’s so prevalent with coaches that it’s become a cliché. We demonize the game that drives men to such levels of competitiveness that they would focus so intently on their work without leaving time for anything else, even their own physical health or mental well-being.

But maybe the game isn’t the problem. Maybe the game isn’t demanding people with these qualities, but rather, people with these natural characteristics are the ones who excel (assuming the same underlying level of talent as their counterparts), and are therefore the ones that rise to prominence and the national spotlight.

Maybe it’s the same in business. Or life.

And maybe I’m one of those people.

I think I’m learning this the hard way, and I’m not sure how much I like it. I’ve been building out large projects for a couple of years now, and by any measure you apply, I’ve had great success (I always hear Borat in my head when I read that phrase, though I’ve never seen the movie. Thanks, world). Every once in a while I’ll hit a big goal that happens to be public knowledge, and people will congratulate me and become a part of that world for a short time, and I’m invariably asked the question, “What are you going to do to celebrate?” I never, ever have an answer. Not only do I not have an answer, but I don’t even care to have one. The fact is, I don’t celebrate my wins. I mean, I may go grab a chocolate malt and say I’m celebrating, but let’s be honest, I get those malts on my own anyway.

It’s not that I’m not allowing myself to celebrate, either. I don’t have some voice inside my head telling me that I’m lazy and no-good and I better get my sorry butt in gear, or else. There’s nothing like that. I just don’t seem to have the “celebratory gene.” Whenever I hit a huge milestone, my reaction is a sense of accomplishment and happiness for about an hour, and then I move on to the next thing on the list. It’s actually quite annoying. The older I get and the more I do, I’m wondering if I’m too much like those coaches I see on TV, and I worry if I’m not getting everything out of life that I should be. I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on something really good, you know? And then I wonder if this character flaw trait will affect my overall health and happiness down the line as well, because I don’t want to become the coach who’s working on his third heart attack. Part of me wonders if many of those major problems can be traced back to this one little thing, and if so, what I can start doing about it now to prevent something like that in the future.

So I want to throw it out there and see how you guys feel. Are there a lot of you out there like me, or am I alone on this? I’d love to hear from you and see how you handle the successes in your life, for better or for worse. Let’s talk in the comments below.

(Image source: TheDreamSky)

  • Emily Hornburg

    I do the same thing. Summer is my craziest time of the year – but also the time when it’s usually dubbed as the “successful time.” It’s the season where you ACTUALLY SEE the progress you have made. I’m the youth minister – and because of that summer means Vacation Bible School, camp, retreats, and one big trip for the high school youth. The highlight of the summer is usually the big trip – this year it was Florida. Teenagers laughed, cried, and transformed before my eyes.   We get back to Missouri Thursday night (well… Friday morning… long story), I take Friday off. Back to work on Sunday and Monday. That week I was already emailing, calling, and Facebooking contacts to start planning next year’s big trip. This past week I pulled out my 2012 calendar – and I already have a good idea of what the rest of my year up to August of 2012 is going to look like. I’m already looking at the teenagers and wondering which ones will make the cut to be camp counselors next summer and which ones I will be taking to become trained to be Peer Ministers in February. (We have about 6-8 teens become counselors, and 3-4 are peer ministers each year.) In my mind I recap everything that happened over the summer and how we can do better and improve over the school year for the next big thing. In my world – August and September is done and I’m freaking out that October isn’t ready yet. Yeah, I let people compliment on how great everything is going with the teenagers, and I do a little presentation to the congregation with pictures of happy youth on the beach… but on the other hand the rest of the church staff piratically shoves me out the door because I’m exhausted and tell me to go on vacation. Then I got sick while on vacation. Boo.

    • See Em, you’re that coach! And when I read it coming from you, it doesn’t sound like the healthiest mindset. And then I realize that I say the exact same thing, and I wonder what the problem is…

      Your accomplishments, surrounding yourself with youth who are finding out who they are, and helping them figure that out, are amazing and life-changing. But it shouldn’t stress you out to the point where you get burned out in 5 years, you know?

      So we all look for the balance . . . I’m just not quite sure where to find it. 🙂

  • This fits great to tibetian buddhism beliefs that are more and more applied by western business people.

    Look at Tony Hsieh from zappos. He is so in his middle, he had so much success, but when you look at his face while an interview, its impossible to tell if he is happy as a clownfish or sad like a frog in the desert.

    I think what you experience is calmness. I’ve heard from many successfull business people that the behaviour that you have torwards success, is one of the behaviours that people have to learn before they are even ready to earn big money or have huge success.

    Enjoy your calmness, it will bring you further then most of the others. When they party 1 or 2 weeks and waste money, you’ve been with your family, you went to bed normally and you went back to work, not only for the success but for the joy that you get from what you’re doing.

    And that is in the end, my friend, the biggest success and it only needs to be celebrated by “living” 🙂

    • Interesting take, Nico . . . so it’s not a problem, it’s actually a sign of maturity. Well, at least in the sense that you’re speaking, which I agree with – not letting “success” go to your head. Getting your value from achieving your own goals in a positive way, etc, and deriving satisfaction from that. I’m actually good at that part of the equation, as I suspect is anyone who sets a high standard and looks to it above most else.

      Of course, you can’t ever let that overtake what’s truly important in life: family, friends, love and joy, and that’s what I’m trying to stay aware of.

  • I don’t think you’re the only one who does this.  I see many high-level military officers at work do this.  (I think you share a lot of those same qualities, from what I’ve seen.) I also noticed that they say the exact same things you did above.

    I think the military pushes this as a culture so these men and women are surrounded by others who feel the same way. The culture of achievement is perpetuated and encouraged.  In a war, you push strategy during the battle, do battle damage assessment (BDA) afterwards, take a break, then push the next offensive. Perhaps the fact that you work alone makes this part of your success magnified. 

    I also think that the fact you stop to wonder about this shows healthy self-evaluation.  You don’t seem oblivious to the fact that you, as a human (a mind/body system) affect the direction and outcome of everything you put in motion. That’s a very level-headed and practical way to see your success.  If you were a haughty, hubristic, overly-celebratory man you would be sabotaging your own success like a true tragic character in a Greek myth.

    As far as your health vs a coach’s health, a coach is constantly pushing people while you push ideas. (?) People are sooooo difficult to manage.  So many unknown variables, so many unpredictable personalities.  If you did what you do directly with people, I would see you as a risk for heart attack and stroke.

    I have not had easy-to-recognize successes.  When I read your post, in my mind I saw a graph with spikes representing successful moments.  Yours might read like a graph of solar activity (I can see this graph easily for some reason)- busy and riddled with massive spikes of solar flares and CME’s while mine was a graph of mean variations in water levels of the tributaries of the Mississippi River – a sine wave with small variations.  I can afford more relax time, but you may have a more accelerated rate. Your spikes are conspicuous, but for many others, their spikes are happy bumps.

    I think in every system there seems to be a small aggregate of something with a specific crucial function.  Entities with a higher frequency than the surrounding entities. I think you are one of those entities.  Don’t worry too much, Nate. You are blessed with the great mind that is supposed to do all of this. There is balance all around you. 🙂

    • Yes, I see too many similarities with myself and high-level military folk too, haha…

      So do you think that people like me and the coaches and the military folks and whoever else can combat this type of thinking/feeling/acting? Natural or not, is it a problem to be solved? Or simply a natural function to acknowledge, mitigate damage, and move on (like having diabetes or asthma)?

      Like, should I *do* anything about it? Even just try to implement some relax and “bliss” time, as Sarah B. says? That never seems to work, though (sorry, Sarah). 

      • sarah

        I honestly think it’s a balance thing – and I think while you may or may not ever totally CHANGE that way of thinking (and frankly, I don’t know that you would be YOU if you did) – maybe at some point, you’ll be able to more easily adapt those moments into your life w/o thinking of it. Maybe it’s a matter of taking five minutes to go for a walk on a nice day instead of staring at your screen in “get ‘er done” mode. 

        I will always tell you to find that bliss – even if you never do. (Though, I hope you’ll try. two minutes. That’s all). Because worst case scenario, even if you don’t actually find those moments, at least you know you have friends who care. And that’s something. 

        • Peliroo Corrice

          LOL.  I like the way Sarah thinks. (Ironically I just wrote a naggy Sarah-like email to a good friend who Nate knows.  Oy.  Coincidences like white squirrels… )  

          I agree that taking those breaks re-sets your system. It IS in those moments that you feel the love people send your way, (although I’m sure you appreciate the love people give you.) 

          Nate, you run a high-performance system in that neural net of yours. A regular Bugatti Veyron. The action potentials in your neurons need that re-set. Maybe it’s just a matter of training your brain to *recognize* the right moments to restart the computer. Even if it’s just taking 10 deep breaths to bathe your brain in O2. 

           The generals and chiefs I work with schedule time to reset. I think, from how I’ve seen you work/think/process stimuli it would be easier to just take those small breathing moments, quietly, while doing other things. (Nico, is this similar to “walking meditation” in Buddhism?)    That way you can still feel productive and bring your brain waves to an alpha level more often.

          • Yeah, I like the idea of resting and enjoying the success while doing something else at the same time, something that is also somewhat enjoyable and doesn’t take a lot of computing cycles.

  • sarah

    Just curious if you heard my naggy voice as you were typing this…. 

    Because (and here’s me being all naggy and Sarah-like) for YOU, while I am somewhat concerned about the physical health aspect of never taking those celebratory times, I am a lot concerned that if you aren’t finding the joy in the things you devote your heart, your time, and your energy to, that you might lose your enthusiasm for them. And I think it’s easy to forget how amazing it is to achieve something – 
    I think it’s a way of thinking… for you, each accomplishment is a step towards one big journey, rather than a bunch of singular destinations — so you’re not celebrating because maybe you don’t think it’s done? Like, “Oh, that’s just another piece of the puzzle, but I’m not there yet.”

    This is coming from someone who – while my accomplishments aren’t as far reaching and often not as spectacular – also sucks at relaxing. I work hard to try (when I can) to find those moments of joy, because I have a tendency to soak stress in until I’m maxed out and then want to shut everyone/everything out. 

    I’m not saying you’re the same – but I don’t want it to be. I want you to realize that your contribution to your piece of the world is awesome, and that you make a difference. Which is why I will always ALWAYS tell you to take those few minutes and find the bliss before moving on to the next step.

    And that’s why I’m the most annoying friend you have. You’re welcome. 🙂

    • I think your metaphor about each accomplishment being one step on a journey is right on, and better said than the way I illustrated it. 

      I think I look at accomplishments as checkboxes to mark off on my to-do list of life, so that no matter how big or how small, it just gets me one step closer to . . . what? Death? Ha!

      But again, I’m not *trying* to be this way, you know? It’s how my brain naturally works, I think.

      Either way, thanks for lookin’ out for me. 🙂

  • Michelle

    Hi Nate,

    We have never met, but your blog post compelled me to respond.

    I used to describe myself almost exactly as you describe yourself. Others would say ‘go-getter, busy, super-productive, organized, driven, etc…’ I would say that I loved my full time job, my volunteer work, my family commitments, my friends, all of it. I could handle it! Bring it on! Let’s get ‘er done! I always had energy and was healthy.

    Used to. 

    Then one day it all stopped. I couldn’t get it together to get out the door to work. I literally could not function. I just sat in a chair trying to figure out what I was doing there.

    It was called an ‘acute stress response’. And it almost killed me. Literally. I had to rebuild my health and my body, and most importantly, my mind. I was off work for 6 months, but the rebuilding took far longer than that. Years. It has now been about 5 years and I am still working on it. My life is back to it’s new normal and is much better now, although I still have to be concious of my overall health, and my focus.

    Now I more productive at work and with my volunteer commitments. I am
    happier. I feel better than ever and am more aware of the world around
    me. This took years of work. Years to become a productive, balanced, go-getter.

    Your questioning of your current state tells me that something is speaking to you. Listen to it. Please.

    I had the same question. But ‘I was fine’.

    I wasn’t fine.

    Now, I have a balance. Some days more than others. But there is a balance.

    It is as important to enjoy the successes as it is to move on to the next item. You need to be able to breath. And smile. There is nothing wrong with being a go-getter and getting lots done. As long as you have balance.

    Please listen to that question you have. It’s telling you something. It’s your gut. Trust it.

    You don’t want 6 months. I promise.

    Maybe one day a week. One sunset a month. An extra hour at the park with your kids. Whatever makes your heart so happy it could burst. Sitting in the sun. A massage. A nap. Whatever it is for you, you are being told you need it.

    Please listen.

    All that you have done for others is amazing. You have inspired so many people to help others. Please help yourself. Answer that question. 

    Do I think you are in the same place I was? Nope. Not yet. Could you get there? Yup. Please don’t get there.

    Michelle

    • This message touched my heart, Michelle – thanks for looking out for me. 🙂

      Truth is, I already went through pretty much what you’re describing: clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I was really, really bad for about a year, kind of bad for another, and pretty much okay after the third. 

      As you say, my life is now in the “new normal,” and for the most part I’m doing very well. But yes, I do have this nagging issue with how to view and enjoy success. 

      I will do my best to listen, though. Thank you.

  • Deb

    Nate,

    I always hate when a stranger presumes to know me or my life, but my heart went out to you.  I’m one of those high-ranking military types, with lots of success and a few bouts of depression/anxiety under my belt.  I finally cracked the code this year and maybe what I learned will be of use to you. 

    Each of us has a perception of ourselves and our lives that guides how we view our circumstances and actions.  I call it my “inner sound track.”  In my case, because of some earlier trauma, my sound track went like this:  “I’m really not all that smart or good, I’m just really good at hiding what a screw-up I am.  I’ve got to keep hustling and hope no one figures out how messed up I am.”  This soundtrack drove me to be extremely good at my job and very successful, but I couldn’t enjoy anything.  I was always secretly worried someone would find out I was a fraud and it would all come crashing down on me.  The more successful I was, the more vulnerable I felt.  At the high point of my career I was depressed and hating my work.  I was in therapy telling my therapist I wanted to quit and never work again.  Even though I was doing the best work of my life, leading a mission with positive, life-changing outcomes, I felt trapped and miserable.  This view of myself also wreaked havoc with personal relationships, parenting, and self-development.  No matter how close I got to people, I was always worried they’d figure out I wasn’t worthy.  No matter how much progress I made, I couldn’t really enjoy it.  What a mess! 

    With some good introspection, I uncovered the real me and wrote a new sound track which goes like this:  “Sure, I’ve got my quirks and frailties but I’m still a heck of a human and I’m really proud of all I’ve accomplished.  I am smart and funny, I’ve got some mad skills, and there’s all kinds of work and play that I’ll enjoy and be great at.   If I try something and I’m not all that great at it, no big deal, we learn from both success and failure.  My life is not a collection of failures and near-misses, it’s a collection of wonderful experiences that have taught me good things.  I’ve led a very interesting life, and it’s given me the tools, experience and passion to be a good mentor.”  When I started saying this to myself, it was like the heavens opened up and the sun started shining!  I finally feel proud of my sucesses and I’m excited about the possibilities ahead. 

    I tell you this not because I think you and I have similar experiences or thoughts, but only to tell you how I got to my understanding that what we believe about ourselves has a powerful effect on how we perceive our lives.  (one of my rules of mentoring is never to take advice without knowing where it came from and never to give advice without telling where it came from.)  You should be feeling proud and energized all the time by the things you do and the choices you make.  If you aren’t, ask yourself, “what’s my soundtrack?” and see if that gives you any insight.  You mention you don’t have an inner voice telling you you’re lazy, but maybe it’s saying something else that’s at odds with who you really are.

    One of the wonderful things about being an introvert is that you’re comfortable with your “insides” and likely to be very self-aware.  The fact that you’re asking questions about your success means that you will  find answers.    

    • I really like the soundtrack idea, especially switching the personal outlook from failure/near miss to wonderful experiences. Man, that one simple thing could do so much good! I’m gonna try that this year. Thanks for the thoughts!

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