For over a decade Lance Armstrong transcended cycling, transcended even sport itself. He was an icon. To millions around the world who looked up to him, Armstrong embodied success in every sense – success in terms of his unparalleled dominance of the Tour De France; success in terms of fighting back from a potentially fatal cancer diagnosis to compete at the highest level possible; success in terms of building a charitable foundation to help others suffering from similar diagnoses.
Now Armstrong is at best a cautionary tale, at worst a disgrace. He has come to symbolize what can happen when our focus on ‘success’ overwhelms our better selves. It’s easy for us to judge Armstrong, as his fall from grace has taken place in the most public way possible, but might it be helpful to put ourselves in his shoes? Or at the very least to ask ourselves how our own pursuit of success might sometimes have led us to wander from the path that actually feels most true for us – to sacrifice our values in order to achieve our goals?
It’s worth getting curious about how it is we define this idea of what it is to be ‘successful’. Armstrong would certainly have been admired amongst his peers had he fought his battle with cancer in private, and maybe even further afield if he had just set up his foundation – but what brought him global acclaim was relentless winning. In our culture, success and ‘winning’ have become synonymous. And for someone to win, someone else has to lose – thus we tend to search for evidence of our success or otherwise by comparing ourselves to other people. Our minds are constantly on the lookout for evidence that we are either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. How much am I earning? How much am I earning compared to my friends? How good is my relationship? How good is my relationship compared to my friends? Am I hitting my targets at work? Are my colleagues hitting their targets?”
Not only are these markers of success by their nature comparative, they are totally external – based on things outside of us, over which we have at best limited control. How much I am earning is absolutely going to be in part a reflection of how good a job I am doing, but it will only be one part. It will also be dependent on the economy, the industry I work in, the company I work for, the part of the country I live in, and countless more factors besides. The health or otherwise of my relationships will absolutely be a reflection of how I am showing up in them, but it will also depend partly on…well, on the other people in those relationships!
It was easy enough to compare ourselves negatively and judge ourselves on the basis of stuff that we cannot control in years gone by, but in the era of celebrity culture and social media the rules of the game have changed! How can I possibly win when Kim Kardashian is gliding down the red carpet at another premiere, while your friend posts the tenth beaming selfie from her luxurious Carribean holiday on Instagram?
But here’s the thing. When you actually ask people, none of this stuff actually matters to them. There’s a great exercise that coaches sometimes do with their clients, which is intended to help them clarify their core values – the stuff that they really care about, the things they want to stand for, the way they want to be and the impact they want to have in the world. You can try it too:
Think of someone you really respect and admire. It could be anyone – someone in the public eye or someone you know personally; living or dead; even a fictional character if you like. Then think of three qualities that person has that particularly evoke your respect and admiration.
When we do this exercise the names of the people change, but the kind of qualities that are reflected back are invariably very similar. People talk about admiring kindness, humility, honesty, positivity, courage. Vanishingly small are the occasions that people mention things like beauty, fame, youth, wealth, or power. When we truly pause to reflect on what really matters to us these things do not even enter the conversation. And yet, these are the things that we judge ourselves on and often strive for on a daily basis, often at the expense of the stuff that does matter – our values.
Author and conscious business coach Fred Kofman talks about ‘success beyond success’. He talks about switching focus from the outcome of our endeavours to the process of endeavouring – away from what we achieve but on how we are as we strive towards it. The measure of success beyond success is not ‘what did I do?’, but ‘to what degree did I uphold my core values as I did it?’ This is a success that comes not from looking at your bank balance, but from looking in the mirror at the end of the day and feeling truly, authentically proud of the person you are.
The beauty of success beyond success is this – it is 100% in your hands. No other person, no shift in the market, no external factor can influence it at all. It is completely independent of any outcome. If you were true to yourself and showed up at your best as you strove to achieve your goal, whether or not it was actually reached is actually immaterial. This, of course, doesn’t mean that goals in themselves are unimportant, they absolutely are – but from this perspective the achievement of goals becomes secondary to the pursuit of values.
This may seem like a radical shift, especially from a business perspective, but here is the thing – a focus on values means good business. Every company has a mission statement, most have certain corporate values that they espouse, but we only need to look at companies like Enron, Haliburton and countless more besides to see the devastation that can happen when a relentless pursuit of success and ‘winning’ overtakes those values.
Without a focus on values, success is not sustainable. And while the superficial markers of success might be attainable in the short-term, they come at a cost – to us and the people around us. A person that uses their values as a compass will navigate through life much more consciously and with a far greater sense of reward. A company that navigates through the market using it’s values as a compass will thrive because it will be delivering on what it’s customers are buying into, (for example, trust, value, reliability) on a consistent basis, supported by a workforce that feels engaged as people and not just commodities.
The ACTivate program is collaboration between the Create Network, Blueprint Coaching and Contextual Consulting. It’s a flexible, evidence-based series of workshop based on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and aims to help companies to mobilise a healthy, happy, motivated workforce, and to develop more resilient and effective leaders. We help people to be more effective and fulfilled by focusing more on their values and less on what their minds might be telling them about what it means to ‘win’. Our aim is to change the world by changing business from the inside-out.
World Values Day on October 20th is a call to refocus our energies on the stuff that actually matters to us and that we can control. By doing so we are claiming back our lives and ourselves. Visit the World Values Day website for inspiration and advice.