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Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic spirit

Why are the Olympics so popular?

Of course there is the "show": the opening ceremony, the events and competitions, and everything in between.

Of course there is the huge gathering of young, healthy, happy (sometimes even sexy!) people from all over the world.

But most of all, there is the dream. The dream we all live by proxy for the whole duration of the Olympics.

The Olympics are a source of inspiration, whether it's to athlete wannabes or anybody else with a dream.

All the while enjoying them, when I watch the Olympics I always find myself confronted to a bunch of recurrent questions.

Having a dream is one thing. Pursuing it is another one. Is it a good idea to pursue a dream to the end? What will it require in terms of effort? What stands between you and your dream? How do you know that your dream can realistically become an actual goal? What would be good reasons to keep going despite the obstacles and difficulties, and what would constitute a good reason to abandon? What are the sacrifices you are willing to make? When do you know you should keep going forward, even if it's tough, and when do you know it's time to let go?


In short, what separates you from your dream? And is this all worth it?

Whenever we dream of "something big", whether if it's in the athletic department or another area, those questions eventually pop up.

What if, no matter how passionate you are about your dream, you feel that something important in your life is paying the price for all the time and energy you are investing in that dream? Because it is inevitable: when you're so dedicated to something, it's gonna be at the expense of something else.

What if achieving your dream requires you to do things that you are really not comfortable with? Obviously, the path to big achievements could hardly be described as comfortable, but what I'm thinking of, for example, is realizing that you will have to sustain important injuries or put potentially dangerous substances into your body in order to perform at a certain level - are we all willing to put our health at jeopardy in the hope of a medal or trophy?

What if the odds all seem to be against you?

And what if, despite all your best efforts... is doesn't work? (As in, you're apparently just not good enough?)

Our society (and, by extension, our parents) tends to tell us that we can achieve anything we set our mind to if only we're willing to put the effort.

Is it a corollary of our capitalist economy, and of the American Dream? Whoever you are, wherever you are,    whatever you have (or don't have)... this one thing would be true: if you really want something, and if you're willing to do everything it requires... you will get it.

In theory, this is a fantastic, confident attitude to have. I like this mentality for the fact that it encourages persistence and self-confidence. It has certainly led some people to success.

I like it less for its inability to consider a few other - and substantial - elements of the equation. A whole lot of people trip and fall - never to get up again - on their way to success. How do we account for that?

If we are told (and if we tell our children) that anything can be achieved given reasonable motivation and effort... then what conclusion will we draw if we fail? Logically, we will infer that motivation and/or effort were lacking. I find this simplistic (and potentially destructive) to say the least.

(As a side note, let us make it clear that motivation, if not a sufficient condition, is a necessary one. If you doubt motivation is key, just ask any prolific and highly admired writer. When asked "how do you do it? How do you write so much?", the usual answer is "because I need to". And it's not about money. It's about a compelling, deep need to go to the page every single day. Some writers will add "I have no merit. If I didn't write, I would not even be here anymore." If writing is their cure for existential pain, then there is no doubt about the strength of their motivation!)

An excessive focus on the power of motivation and effort, though, could lead us to fallacious conclusions. Children who do poorly in school would all be lazy and demotivated? What about the lack of a proper stimulating environment, what about learning difficulties, what about not having anything to eat for  breakfast?

Opening doors to our young by telling them the world is theirs to conquer, whatever the obstacles, if only they really want to... that is very empowering. We certainly all want the best for our children (and for ourselves). Finding excuses/behaving like a victim (which is so easy; aren't we all experts at finding excuses?) will never prove useful. I am all for rolling up my sleeves and sucking it up.

But we have to be careful if we are to let our young believe that the whole responsibility for success lies within them. Because if they don't make it, they'll feel guilty. Potentially, like a failure.

The line is very fine between internal and external attribution, and this is one case where you don't want to be wrong. You don't want to abandon a dream and blame everything and everyone but yourself, when in fact, all that was lacking was your own determination. On the other hand, you don't want to berate yourself indefinitely if the dream did not become reality.

We'll all agree that big achievements require dedication. We'll also have to agree that one needs more than strong motivation and hard work to achieve a dream such as participating in the Olympics (or becoming erudite, famous, rich, whatever your big dream is).

A supportive environment is one example. Research keeps telling us that people who are successful in business or academia rely on resources such as a strong network and an inspiring mentor. As for children, they are self-motivated... to a certain point. Whenever I witness a precocious prodigy, I wonder if - and how much - the parents pushed. A little encouragement is fine, and some kids do push themselves quite a lot without much exterior intervention... but again, the line is fine. Supportive and encouraging is good, pushy is not.

Another part of my questioning regards talent. As a society that's very strong on the equality of birth, value and rights (something I completely agree with), we are rather uncomfortable with this other factor of success: talent. For if there is such a thing as natural talent, then how could we all be born equal? And how could we all have the same aspirations? Yet talent does play a role in success. (Although talent alone would be nothing! We certainly don't want to undermine all the hard work those Olympic athletes and all other high-achievers are putting forward.)

If we're specifically talking about athletic accomplishments, your natural talent could be your genes/morphology. It has been argued, for example, that Michael Phelps' success at swimming is at least partly explained by his unusual anatomy: his long wingspan, long feet, etc. could all contribute significantly to his speed in the pool.

If you read the biography or hear an interview about any high-achiever, you will notice one thing: yes, they've worked really hard... but to them, it hardly felt like a cruel series of sacrifices. When someone performs really well at something, it's because they are putting the time and energy... but it is also because they have a talent for it. Whether that talent is innate or acquired, I will not discuss here, but to me it's pretty clear that talent exists and has an incredible influence on success (or lack thereof).

I will refrain from adopting a scientific approach to prove my point, and instead will provide you with two personal examples.

1) Example of a "failure".

I started playing tennis at a very young age. In fact, as soon as we were able to, my brother and I followed our parents to their weekly practice, and got acquainted with tennis rackets and tennis balls before we could even sing our alphabet properly. From childhood and well into adolescence, I took tennis lessons regularly. I was also in a league. There were tournaments. I had great instructors. My parents were fully supportive, and we sometimes played tennis in our free time. In fact, I played a lot outside my "official requirements", just for fun. I liked it a lot. For the longest time, tennis was actually the only sport I truly enjoyed (I was not born, but rather slowly became, athletic). There was just one problem: after learning the basics and progressing through the levels... I stalled. I stopped improving. I knew all the techniques and practiced them at length. It showed... to a certain point. You could tell I had been taking tennis lessons for a while, but as my peers were getting stronger, efficient and accurate in their strokes, I wasn't. What was wrong with me? My dedicated parents had my eyesight checked. They bought me a new racket. They payed for private lessons. Did it help? Slightly. I surely enjoyed the private lessons with the hot instructor. But truth is, I was stuck. I still liked playing. But whatever resources were provided to me, I wasn't going anywhere. I had reached my full potential, and I'm sad to say it happened long before I could even catch a glimpse of the possibility of eventually considering the Olympics. My explanation is that I simply lacked the talent. I would forever be a tennis enthusiast, but I would never become a tennis woman.

2) Example of a "success".

On the other hand, in the one area where I have always "performed" the most - namely written French, be it grammar, spelling, syntax - I never, ever felt I needed to put any effort. I have yet to find an explanation to the fact that once I've seen a word, I will forever remember how to spell it. I have yet to find an explanation to the fact that I mastered the numerous rules of French grammar (and the almost as numerous exceptions to said rules) almost instantly, without even paying attention in class or to what I read. People would be impressed and congratulate me on my writing, but I wasn't even that proud of myself. How could I be, when I had done absolutely nothing (not on purpose, anyway)? It felt so natural I actually wondered why everybody  else was not as good at it. I always felt like this "talent" had fallen upon me from above. There must have been a fairy godmother making wishes at my birth: when she touched my forehead with her magic wand, I imagine she whispered "this one will master all subtleties and complexities of the French language".

(She should have added "and she will be able to draw a horse that doesn't look like a koala, and vice-versa. Oh well.)

I guess my conclusion would be: if you want to pursue a dream, very well. By all means do. Make sure you have the motivation. Make sure your priorities are in order. Try and make the environment as favourable as possible. Get support. Be disciplined. Work hard as hell. Don't give up. Don't find excuses. But most of all, when you choose which dream to pursue, choose one that comes to you naturally, and that you enjoy fully. Then, maybe... you'll reach the stars.

(And if you don't... well that's totally fine, too.)

For a well-written critic of the Olympic Games, please go to this link (in French).