The 1990s comedy Cool Runnings is about the first-ever Jamaican bobsled team to compete in the Winter Olympics.
Their coach, played by John Candy, is an American gold medalist who retires in Jamaica in disgrace after cheating in an Olympic bobsledding event. He makes his living as a bookie until he’s convinced to coach the Jamaican team.
Although it’s their first Olympics, the team members are eager to bring home the gold. Sensing their eagerness to win—which, in the coach’s case, prompted an ill-advised decision to cheat—the coach warns them:
A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.
For much of my life, I ignored this advice.
I kept chasing one gold medal after the next. Leaving Turkey and getting into a great college in the United States. Going to law school. Passing the bar exam. Finding a federal clerkship. Landing a job at a good law firm. Finding a tenure-track academic position in a livable city. Becoming a U.S. citizen. Getting tenure. Writing a book. Writing a second book.
In each case, I assumed that once a gold medal arrived, my life would instantly change for the better.
I assumed that with each gold medal, the clouds would part, my self-doubt would dissipate, and the feeling of success would finally bring me a sense of self-worth and belonging that I craved.
I know I’m not alone here. Many of us go through life in search of gold medals that overpromise but underdeliver.
In seeking one gold medal after the next, we end up deferring the life we desire. We ignore our family, we neglect close friends, and we push our bodies and minds past their breaking points. We reduce the significance of the small joyful moments in anticipation for a big bang.
When success arrives, the high of a gold medal lasts for the briefest of moments. We get a dollop of temporary satisfaction, but return to our pre-success level of happiness through a psychological process called hedonic adaptation. That dream job, that coveted title, that lavish apartment quickly become the new normal.
We then up the ante, increase the dosage, and begin looking for a bigger hit to score. It’s no longer enough to hit the New York Times bestseller list. Now, you have to hit # 1. Once you hit # 1, that won’t be enough either. You now have to stay # 1 for weeks and then months.
On and on we go on that hedonic treadmill, feverishly rushing past one milestone after the next collecting a series of gold medals, but remaining stagnant when it comes to our happiness and well-being.
Which brings me back to the coach’s advice.
A gold medal can be a wonderful thing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting one.
Keep sledding toward your goals, but remember: If you’re not enough without a gold medal, you won’t be enough with one.
If you’re not happy now, you won’t be happy when success arrives.
You’re far better off designing the life you want now, instead of indefinitely deferring it for an illusory big bang.
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