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During a recent lunch with some of my colleagues, the conversation turned, as it inevitably had during the past few weeks, to the Olympic Games.
“Some of these Olympic medalists are so inspirational,” said one of my colleagues.
“Absolutely,” echoed another, “especially when you think of what some of them had to overcome—rape, poverty, death of close ones, bullet wounds, etc.—to win medals. In comparison, the obstacles that I face are so much smaller. Seeing them succeed has motivated me to work even harder for my success!”
Such reactions are, of course, totally understandable. Watching top athletes perform at the peak of their game can be an awe-inspiring sight. And when we get to know the athlete’s back-story, as was the case this time with the coverage of the Olympics, it is only natural to feel inspired by them.
But consider the following question: Is feeling inspired by Olympic medalists a good thing?
Not necessarily, if you consider some of the motivations that underlie these feelings of inspiration.
Perhaps the most typical reason underlying feelings of inspiration is the desire to be successful and famous. When we feel inspired by an Olympic athlete, what we are really saying is, “I wish I could emulate this athlete’s success. I wish that I too could bask in the glory just as this athlete is.”
Of course, the desire to be successful and famous is not the only reason why we feel inspired by medalists. Sometimes we feel inspired—as one of my colleagues did— by the difficulties that these athletes have had to overcome en route to their success, which may make us feel that we complain too much about the relatively minor obstacles that we face. In other words, sometimes Olympic medalists inspire us to stop complaining about—if we are honest—the relatively minor hiccups that we encounter in our lives. However, if the desire to stop complaining is the primary motivation underlying these feelings of inspiration, shouldn’t we feel inspired by all athletes who had to overcome difficulties—not just the medalists? Indeed, should our inspiration require the title of “Olympian” at all?
But how many of us can recall the story of non-medalists?
The truth is that most of us feel inspired more often by medalists, or by folks like them. That is, many of us draw inspiration mainly from successful, famous, rich, powerful, and beautiful people. We feel inspired more often by people like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama than by people like Nick Vujicic.
The desire to be successful and famous is, of course, very prevalent amongst humans, and is related to desire to be rich, powerful, and beautiful. Underlying all of these desires is what I call: The Need to be Important. As Dale Carnegie noted in his classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the need to be important underlies almost everything we do. One of the unfortunate features of this need is that achieving it inherently requires signals from other people. There is no internal yardstick by which we can measure our own importance; it is only through how others treat us that we deduce it. The more the others recognize and praise us, the more important we feel, and the happier we are as a result.
Relying on others to figure out our own importance, however, levies a heavy cost on us: it makes us dependent on others. Depending on others is dangerous because everyone is concurrently seeking the need to be important and so, unless one is the clear “winner,” one cannot reliably expect to have the need for importance fulfilled. In other words, everyone other than the winner ends up feeling miserable. And further, even if you happen to be in the lucky position of the winner, you cannot take this position for granted: your competitors are constantly nipping away at your heels, eager to displace you as soon as possible, leading you to stress and anxiety.
Thankfully, the need for importance is not the only source of happiness. As several scholars have noted, we derive a great deal of happiness from “flow” activities—activities in which we get so absorbed that we completely lose track of time when engaging in them. Think of the last time that you lost track of time; it might have been when you were playing a video game or when you were engaged in a heated debate with a friend. Chances are, even if you did badly in the video game or were proved wrong during the debate—thus, you need for importance was not fulfilled—, you still derived a great deal of satisfaction from the activity. Unsurprisingly, therefore, findings in the area of intrinsic motivation show that people have a strong desire to engage in flow activities.
In contrast to the need for importance, the need for flow is a more reliable source of happiness for two main reasons. First, unlike importance, flow is not a scarce resource: one man’s flow need not come at the cost of another’s. For example, two tennis players competing against each other can both enjoy the game if their enjoyment is not tied solely to beating the other. Second, flow is indispensable for building expertise. As findings from studies on learning and expertise show, one cannot master a domain without several thousand hours of active, flow-like, engagement with activities in that domain. Indeed, the Olympic medalists that we so admire became good at what they do because of flow. Without flow, they would not have achieved the success that many of us wish to emulate. Flow, rather than the need for importance, is thus the real—and often unsung—hero of success stories.
And yet, hardly anyone feels inspired by Olympic medalists to find and nurture their own flow; rather, most feel inspired to emulate the medalists’ success and fame.
Most people do not suspect that drawing inspiration from others can be so subversive. This is mainly because, when we feel inspired, our focus is on another person (e.g., the Olympic athlete), rather than on ourselves, and thus we perceive the feeling of inspiration to be non self-centered. So, we instinctively feel that there is nothing wrong with feeling inspired; in fact, we may even believe that the feeling is noble. But, in truth, the true desire underlying the feeling of inspiration is often an intensely self-centered one: the desire for self-aggrandizement.
One may wonder whether seeking to boost one’s sense of importance through success or fame is necessarily a bad thing. One could argue, for instance, that it is through seeking success and fame that we accomplish progress as a society. If people didn’t desire fame and success, would humans have been as successful as we are? Would we have made the technological advances that allow us to enjoy the creature comforts that we currently do?
Without getting into a debate about whether we are better or worse off as a result of our technological advances, there is little doubt, as Jeffrey Sachs notes in Common Wealth, that our progress has come at a tremendous cost to other living beings and has also put future generations at peril.
More importantly, the argument that progress depends on the desire to be famous, successful and important, is a specious (albeit self-fulfilling) one. As Simon Sinek notes in his TED talk, one could just as easily argue that true and meaningful progress depends on finding and pursuing one’s intrinsic motivations, rather than on the desire for success. The role that intrinsic motivation and flow play in facilitating progress is starting to be recognized by others, such as, Daniel Pink (author of Drive), Sir Ken Robinson (author of The Element), as well.
Does all this mean that it is wrong to admire or appreciate the Olympic medalists?
Far from it. It is, of course, a privilege to witness the strength, balance, endurance, flexibility and grace that these athletes exhibit. But there is a big difference between admiring or appreciating the athletes, and seeking to emulate their fame and success. In the former case, one would feel a sense of “awe” or “elevation” when witnessing the medalists perform; in the latter case, one would feel a desire for self-aggrandizement disguised as inspiration.
This brings us to a second negative consequence of feeling inspired by Olympic medalists. When we feel inspired by the medalists, we are doing our bit to promote and cultivate, what the economist Robert Frank calls, a Winner Take All society. As several surveys show, the divide between the rich and the poor—the haves and the have-nots—has been growing in recent years in almost every society. By focusing on the medalists, we are, in our own small way, increasing this divide. The more inspired we feel by the medalists, and the more we shower them with our attention and adulation, the more we agree to allocate resources—sponsorships, media attention—to them. And this helps increase the divide between the medalists and those who “merely” competed in the Olympics.
This can result in the non-medalists, who have often worked just as hard as the medalists, to be ignored and left to fend for themselves after their years of hard-work and dedication. This is precisely what happened to two non-medaling Olympians from the 1988 and 1996 games—Derek Brown and Kate Mackenzie.
So, the next time you feel inspired by someone, ask yourself: exactly why are you inspired by them? If you are inspired to stop complaining about the obstacles you face, or if you are inspired to seek and engage in flow activities, that’s one thing. But, if you are inspired to be as successful, rich, famous, or powerful, as them think twice about whether this is a good thing. You may, without realizing it, be setting yourself up for misery.
Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free!) online course on happiness