Here is a fun fact about me: I cry every time I watch the Olympics. Yup, that is right. Huuuuuuuuuge sap right here. With a foundation of pride the athletes have in representing their country to how impressive they are in their individual skillsets, the Olympics get me EVERY. DAMN. TIME. Watching the competition can be so stressful, too, though (#Womensicehockey last night, anyone?) even though I am not competing and I have no personal stake in the outcome. I cry because no matter what the result, it is such a cool achievement to simply be there and compete in the sports about which they are all so clearly passionate. I am always fascinated, though, by the athletes' focus on winning medals as the ultimate emblem of their achievement when any athlete who has ever participated in the Olympics that did not earn a medal can still call him/herself an olympian and garner almost as much recognition for their athletic prowess than the medaling superstars. Obviously not the exposure and press conferences and sponsorships and book deals that come from winning medals and world cup championships all the time, but exposure nonetheless for the foundational reason that they are at the olympics: to compete in an athletic sport.
I have always had an odd relationship with competition and achievement. I have become more comfortable as an adult with certain forms of confrontation and in fact have become strong at conflict mediation in professional settings. My engagement in competition, however, ended after college. The subject of competition relates so much to narrative, both on the individual and cultural levels, that I will dedicate a whole post to it soon, but for now the Olympics has made me think a whole lot about the idea of achievement.
When I watch Alpine Skiing in the Olympics (my favorite sport to watch), the cameras never stay on the competitors after the last run is skied for me to see how the athletes who did not make the podium or better yet who were pushed off the podium in the last run react to not getting a medal but still acknowledge that they did pretty darn well. Some athletes who get interviewed have trained themselves in the mindset that their effort is only worth it if they get a medal at the end. Some even focus only on gold and nothing else is acceptable. I am just an objective spectator who used to ski race (which means I know what the competitive aspect feels like even though I do not know what it is like to ski at 90mph down an ice rink in South Korea) but my personal mindset is if I ended up, say, in the top ten in an Olympic event, I would think that that is pretty darn cool! I would blast that all over social media. As a matter of fact, I may lose a medal somewhere or stress every night when I go to bed that it would get stolen.
I have trophies from athletic exploits growing up but they are simply that: trophies. I would be disappointed if they were lost or stolen because I am an extremely sentimental person, but I would soon understand that they are simply representations of something I experienced and I do not need to hold on to the object in order to remember the achievement. Similarly, I gave away some shirts and sweaters a few days ago that I remember loving when I wore them and guess what? I am already over it. They are just fabric.
I have thought in the past and currently think a lot about my sense of achievement with regard to starting and owning businesses like I have. I started wanting to own my own company way back in high school without a clue in the world a) how to start anything and b) what the heck it would be about. But that did not matter. I knew that was a goal. And the seed only grew.
So when I started The Tailored Quill in 2015 and I had multiple clients paying me for services before I even had a name, logo, or website, I of course saw it as an achievement. I had finally done it. I had created a business that I could call my own and I was immediately making profit. But what happened next? The same thing that happens after Shaun White wins a gold medal at the Olympics. New work begins. I had to provide what the clients asked for. I cannot rest on my laurels because then my enterprises will not survive. I can learn form my achievements just as I can learn from my failures and keep going. When I officially launched a crowdfunding campaign and blasted out announcement emails, I said "Okay, that is cool" because I achieved the learning experience of building those two campaigns, which I had never previously needed to know how to do. And that is the extent of that achievement because I then had to build the rest of the business. It is not like that automatically garnered me a hundred paying clients or meant that I could retire. On the contrary, that hardly caused a ripple. My brain made the mental note of the achievement but I knew I could not spend the rest of the day drinking champagne saying "that email campaign was so sexy. I have earned the day off."
Definitions of success have to be subjective but so many people and entrepreneurs listen to the objective societal definitions of it. You know, millions of dollars, big house, nice car, the latest clothes. 'merican Dream! I sort of fell prey to those ideals for a while until I realized that I have absolutely zero interest in living in a ginormous mansion. As soon as I was able to ground my goals and interests in contrast to those of society, new goals for myself and my companies were dramatically different. Achievement is no longer assigned to a monumental accomplishment but instead takes the form of teeny tiny things.
For example, I bought a cardboard box and packaging tape at the post office this morning. There was no line (which is a miracle in itself), the box is the perfect size, and the tape does not get all bunched up and stuck on itself. The post office should get a gold medal for that because it started my day off so nicely and smoothly and it even got me stoked to tackle the other tedious items on my to-do list today.
I have learned that achievement of the tiniest things make the biggest difference to me. I do not need to have a multi-billion dollar business on my own and I also do not want to deal with all of the staff members that a multi-billion dollar business would require. Instead, testing out a new social media strategy yesterday for the fun of it was a win. Feeling confident and comfortable expressing myself over this platform every week is a victory. Maintaining two businesses that have been profitable since both of their inceptions is my gold medal.
In reality, achievement is recognizing that for which you are grateful. I am grateful that my businesses are profitable but I am not bragging about it as though it means I have attained enlightenment over all other business people in the world. I am thankful that I was taught the new social media strategy and that it is something I can comfortably sit down and put into action. Gratitude moves you forward.
There is an awesome scene in the military film Jarhead in which a couple soldiers are talking animatedly about the video game level that one of them is about to beat and another soldier flatly chimes in "You know what happens when you beat that game? Nothing. You start over." Humorous buzzkill but he has a point. I can be excited when I beat a level in Candy Crush but all that means is that I move on to the next level, the next challenge. I am grateful for the skills, knowledge, and strategy I used to beat that level, though.
Achievement is what you make it, so here is your homework:
- Rewrite your to-do list, but this time double check to see if any tasks could be broken down to even smaller chunks that are more easily achieved. Make sure your goals are realistic for the time and resources you have available.
- Define success for yourself. Whether a casual brainstorm or a formal statement, getting something down on paper that does not appease society or your mom or your overzealous business partner will feel oh so good. What is success to YOU? A bulleted list of long term goals is just as acceptable as a fantasy paragraph about where you want to live. You will not be graded.
Start thinking about what achievement looks like in your daily lives. That way, you can be like me and say "huh, that was cool" when you learn something new and cross your unique personally realistic goals off of your list every day. I am grateful to you for reading this post and I count that as an achievement. No medal necessary.