First off, I want to say that I promise you this blog is about horses – it just gets to the topic in a bit of a circumspect way!
The other day I was in a bookstore, idly browsing through some of the physics books. I did my undergraduate degree in physics and am a big fan of Richard Feynman’s books – most of them compilations of his various lectures, seminars and speeches over the years. I was flipping through “Tips on Physics” when I came to an interesting speech he gave to first year students at Caltech, who were just starting their study of physics. This is what he said:
“There are lots of high schools, and all the very best… apply [to Caltech]… And so you guys have been very carefully picked out from all these schools to come here… When you’ve lived all the time as number one or number two (or even number three) in high school science… and now you suddenly discover that you are below average– and half of you guys are– it’s a terrible blow… The question is what to do if you find you are below average.” [Feynman, R and Gottlieb, M., Feynman’s Tips on Physics, pg 37]
This passage stuck with me, for some reason. I thought about some of the high performing academics and athletes that I know – especially the riders. I find that one thing that seems to unite them all is, for better or worse, a drive to succeed and an ambition to improve. But more than that – a lot of them also don’t like to fail.
And while I know that failing is an unavoidable and potentially beneficial side effect of any great endeavour – that it’s bound to happen at some point, if you are pushing your limits – I think that most elite riders would at least admit that they’d prefer to succeed over failing, prefer to win over losing!
Isn’t it that drive that makes them such great athletes – that restless, never-satisfied, never-quit attitude? So how could an athlete such as this be satisfied, if they worked and worked and practised and practised to move up the levels, made it to Grand Prix, for instance – and found that instead of winning, they were now losing?
While I think, from my vantage point far below, that just to compete in a Grand Prix is a victory in and of itself – it stands to reason that by the time you’ve made it to that level, your expectations for yourself have shifted. You’ve succeeded and won to get to that point.
If, hypothetically, you and your horse have reached the critical limit of your skill, athleticism, and ability – you’re an excellent rider and he’s an excellent horse, but you’re not excellent enough to be competitive at that level – you’re excellent enough to be effective, to “get round” successfully, but not excellent enough to win. What do you do? Do you keep on toiling, keep on pushing to try and “beat” some standard, keep on comparing yourself (to your detriment) to those who are besting you? Or do you accept that there are others who may simply be better than you – but don’t let that fact tarnish the reality of your own achievements?
There is always going to be a point where you’ve reached the limit of your ability. Even the very best in the world in their respective disciplines are not limitless. That’s in part what makes us so amazing. So psychologically, is it better to continually push yourself, but always compare yourself to those better than you as opposed to appreciating how far you’ve come; or is it better to take the lesson, push yourself to your limit, then accept your limitations will probably not allow you to outshine your competitors – but take pride at having tried it anyway? Feynman said this:
“…some people may drive themselves to a point where they insist they have to become Number One, where they want to… become the best… even though they’re starting out at the bottom here [at Caltech]. Well, they are likely to be disappointed and make themselves miserable for the rest of their lives, being always at the bottom of a very first-rate group, because they picked that group. That’s a problem, and that’s up to you – it depends on your personality.” [Feynman, 38]
The thing is, I think the people who can make it to that elite level – the people who qualify for the Olympics, the people who get into Caltech, the people who enter at A for a Grand Prix dressage test – are typically people with a perfectionist personality, or at the very least a dedicated personality. A focused personality. To someone who has been driven all their lives, I’m not sure that just “making it” would be good enough. Because there really is no end point to the improvement trajectory – where, exactly, have you gotten?
Right now, my goal is the 1.2m jumpers. Within four years or so, I want to walk through the in-gate and pull off a clear round in the 1.2m jumpers. Right now, that seems like it would be enough. I would be so happy to go clear in the meter twenties! But once I’ve gone clear in the meter twenties… won’t I want to try for the meter forties? And if I get there, won’t I want to try and step up to a Grand Prix?
We like to push ourselves, we like to challenge ourselves. I posed the question on my Facebook: would you rather win locally, consistently and regularly, or would you rather qualify for the Olympics, go there and lose? The vast majority said they’d rather qualify for the Olympics, they’d rather lose there than win elsewhere. And I am inclined to agree.
But at the same time, I think it’s important to keep perspective. I think it’s important to try and keep that shiny-eyed feeling of awe we feel about great achievements right now, as we go on to try and pursue them.
At some point in every successful venture, you will meet someone who is better than you. Comparing yourself incessantly will not help you in the long run. Do your best for yourself. Periodically pause and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. If you’re struggling in Advanced Quantum Mechanics at Caltech, you’re probably not worried about the calculus that used to give you pause. If you’re pulling a rail in the 1.6m jumpers, you’ve still come a long way since the first time you rode around a crossrail course.
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