Did you watch any of the recent Olympic coverage? I don’t care whether it’s gymnastics, rugby, swimming, or table tennis, there’s something about seeing the incredible performances and the feats of strength, agility, endurance, and mental fortitude. No matter who wins, it’s moving to realize what that athlete has accomplished, and what every athlete who has participated in the Games has achieved. How often do you get to witness such joy and fulfillment?
But once you’ve reached the top of your game, what happens? How does anyone, world-class athlete or not, deal with the loss of identity that comes with achieving an all-consuming goal? Striving toward a goal is often not just part of our identity, it IS our identity. Working toward that goal becomes what we are all about. And once the task is accomplished, it can be a little terrifying, because now what?
I suppose we think that once an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal, everything in her life will be perfect from then on. Or that once someone summits Mount Everest, everything else will go smoothly for him. Once you earn your college degree, once you land that job that sounds so perfect for you, once your business is a success, once you get that starring role you’ve been seeking, or once you publish your book, everything will now be rosy.
Olympic gold medalist Steve Mesler (2010 four-man bobsled) says that for almost 20 years, winning an Olympic medal was all he cared about. Working for that gold was his complete identity. Then he and his teammates won, and a couple of months later a friend asked him, “What does it feel like to write the first line of your obituary at the age of 31?” And Mesler realized that hopefully he had another 50 or more years to live, but he was never going to do anything that big again.
One of the first things Mesler learned was that he needed to work through a grief process. Who he had been and the lifestyle he had led were now over. He needed to let himself feel sadness for something that was gone before he could enter a new phase of his life.
It is normal to feel a sense of loss whenever you complete a big goal, whether it’s winning a tournament, seeing your child off to college, or retiring from your career. And the nostalgia isn’t only for that final climactic day, but for all of the years that led up to it. Yes, you made sacrifices in order to achieve your goal, but you also developed camaraderie with those who were working with you. You gained skills and confidence, had the satisfaction of knowing you excelled at something, and basked in the support and accolades that came your way.
That is why you may be tempted to hang on to awards, certificates, school papers, photographs, and other evidence of your years of hard work and dedication. It’s a way to relive those glory days. But hanging on to too much of that stuff can actually strengthen the feeling that all of your good times are in the past. These relics can become a dusty monument to who you used to be, and keep you from moving on.
Because another thing that comes after a great success is that you and others want to know “What now?” And even if you have some ideas about that, there are challenges you will have to navigate. For example, instead of being top dog in what you did before, you’re once again at the beginning, learning something new. That can test your patience, as well as your confidence. You may expect too much from yourself at first, because you’re used to a high level of success. You’re also accustomed to a certain kind of structure – the schedule and activities that led to your first achievement. Once you move on to another phase of life, you may feel a bit lost because that framework and consistency are gone. You must once again figure out how to proceed.
If you or a loved one is at a crossroads like this, give yourself some grace. Focus on all you have to be happy about, but let yourself feel sadness for what is ending. Cultivate a learner’s mind that will let you take on a new challenge with hope and excitement. If you’re dealing with depression, take Steve Mesler’s advice and treat it like an injury. He would never hesitate to see a doctor about a torn ligament, and he no longer feels doubtful about getting professional help for depression either.
And reconsider keeping all of the stuff you amassed along the way to victory. One or two keepsakes can find a place of honor in your home, drawing attention because they are unique, and creating an opportunity for you to tell your story. But leave room for all of the good things to come.
About the Author: Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of Minimalism A to Z, and blogs at MaximumGratitudeMinimalStuff.