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I Coulda Been a Contender

Some people spend a lifetime clocking their non-accomplishments and dreaming of a big break. Here’s how to escape aspirational limbo, even if the only change you make is to your mind-set.

I have never written a best-selling book.

I have never won a Pulitzer.

I have never reported for 60 Minutes, won a gold medal in gymnastics, or thanked my parents and God as Barbara Streisand handed me my Oscar for Best Actress/Writer/Director.

I do not have a Ph.D. or J.D. Nor, for that matter, did I spend my undergraduate years frolicking amid the ivied walls of Harvard or Yale.

I have only one home, a one-bedroom in New York City. No Tuscan villa. No French chateau. No yurt in Sonoma.

In sum, I am not living the life I expected—the life of, say, Diane Sawyer, Julia Roberts, or better yet, Barack Obama. And this bothers me.

A lot.

It’s not that I think I’m a total loser. I can hold my own at cocktail parties. I can pitch a tent. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I have an MFA in creative writing and I authored a book, Teenage Waistland, which was optioned by SONY Pictures. (Not that it was ever made into a movie.) I even saved someone’s life once–a woman had pilfered cantaloupe slices from the bulk food section of a supermarket, began choking on them, and turned to me for assistance. I called out, “Heimlich in Aisle 1! We need someone to do the Heimlich in Aisle 1!”

She lived.

On good days, my psychic resume seems fine. Other times, I’m gripped with the gnawing sensation that I haven’t tapped my full potential, that I’m not operating on all six cylinders, that I’m simply not…enough. On those days I identify with the late Farrah Fawcett, who longed to move past Charlie’s Angels status into serious acting. People laughed—until she did The Burning Bed, which got her nominated for an Emmy award and a Golden Globe.

I’ve got more in me, too, I think.

Call it the Contender Syndrome–while this phenomenon is not a clinical diagnosis, the feeling is quite common today, especially with the proliferation of social networking and the public blaring of the fabulousness of other people’s lives.

“Whether it’s a 16-year-old student or 45-year-old CFO, I hear them say, ‘I’m not as successful as I should be,’ and I’m seeing it more and more,” says Jim Taylor, a psychologist in San Francisco. “It used to be that your immediate comparison group was your neighborhood or friends. Now you’re exposed to everybody who has so much. We base our happiness on our most immediate comparison group. These days, it’s the world.”

Looking Up Gets You Down

We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.

Take Cheryl Aviva Amitay, a graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland law school. Amitay has a happy marriage, a great daughter, two older “bonus” stepsons, and a career as a lawyer near her home in Bowie, MD. Still, she’s plagued with feeling subpar compared to some of her peers.

“I read through Brown Alumni Magazine and feel a bit ill as I see how rich, famous, and influential my classmates have become,” says Amitay. “It seems like everyone and their mothers are doing interesting, meaningful, exciting things. I am just back at work, in a non-permanent, junior contract legal position, after having been laid off from a job I didn’t like but that at least had a great title. I feel like the world’s greatest underachiever who peaked senior year in high school, when I got into Brown early admission, was the school president and class clown, played drums in a band, did school plays, and was considered ‘cool’ and ‘different.’”

Amitay acknowledges that her life probably looks good to others, but she’s bothered by thinking she should have been able to leverage her “wits, brass, and assertiveness” into something bigger or more extraordinary.

I know the feeling. Take Tina Fey. I do not know Tina Fey, but we’re around the same age, have similar coloring and are known for being funny—at least she is. Sometimes it really bums me out, the feeling that I Am Not Tina Fey and Never Will Be. Other times, I think about her accomplishments and kick into high gear, logging extra hours at my computer. Why do I, and others, vacillate between feeling inspired and wracked with despair?

Because excellence in others expands our sense of possibility, giving us a positive surge of energy–unless we’re too wrapped up in a knot of negative self-comparison to gain that vicarious boost, says Shane Lopez, a psychologist and senior scientist at the Gallup organization. The key is to remain “self-referential,” to allow ourselves to be moved by others while staying focused on our own path. “Self-referential people see themselves as the marker,” says Lopez. “They care about their own performance, not how they measure up compared to that guy over there. They don’t attach themselves to super successful people. They can get the boost, but they don’t see that person as a reference point or a competitor because the only competitor is the self.”

Self-referential people are more hopeful than those of us who see everyone else’s path as possibly better than our own, says Lopez. They have their own personal goals, and constantly turn their focus to those. “If you’re flipping channels– ‘I coulda been a great author.’ Click. ‘I coulda been a great chef.’ Click– you’re never going to be any of those. You have to figure out what matters to you and bring your attention and focus back to that, not to what someone else is doing.”

The Real You vs. the Ideal You

The contender syndrome is subtly different from envy. It’s more a sense of not living up to the best you, rather than not living up to the best Albert Einstein. A multibillionaire reality TV producer once told me that he felt like he hadn’t arrived because he’d never made a movie. He had gobs of money, but he hadn’t “proven” himself because he was not a feature film producer.

Some psychologists say the feeling of not reaching your potential comes from a discrepancy between the “actual self” (who you are), the “ideal self” (who you’d like to be), and the “ought self” (who you think others want you to be). Troubles arise when your actual self doesn’t align with your other visions. “It may come from parents or teachers saying, ‘There’s more in you. You can do it,’” says Hazel Markus, a psychologist at Stanford University. “We believe that it’s the right thing to say; it gives people optimism.” But as a culture, Markus says, we don’t pair that praise of innate talent with practical strategies for developing it. Markus says there isn’t one “type” of person or personality likely to develop a painful gap between ideal and real self, but rather that some of us never learned how to build a bridge from where we are now to where we’d like to be.

Potential isn’t some static, internal entity that springs from us onto the page, or stage, or ball field. Our potential is malleable; it can be built. Recognizing this is essential if we hope to reach it. “A lot of people think you need the talent for being a leader, or playing basketball. People who end up suffering, feeling like they could have been a contender, are those with the idea that talents are pretty much fixed, so they don’t figure out how to get from where they are now to where they want to be,” says Markus. “They don’t even really think it’s possible, so they don’t put the work into it.”

Real, focused work, as mundane as that sounds, is often what separates the contenders from the victors. “Dreams are good, but unscaffolded, I think they’re dangerous,” says Markus.

Vague dreams, in particular, have a risky side. Marcia Reynolds, an organizational psychologist in Phoenix and author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, says that the endless quest to live up to one’s imagined, yet amorphous, potential can actually prevent a person from excelling.

In a 2007 study, Reynolds looked at 100 women who had been working for at least 10 years, but hadn’t made it to CEO. She wondered why they hadn’t moved into the top executive position. “Many were not choosing to stay around long enough. They would do all this work, and then when the recognition and challenges started to dwindle, they would move on to another company.” While Reynolds’ study focused on women, the desire for challenge and success combined with ill-defined goals can plague both sexes, often translating into impatience that’s detrimental to reaching the very top. “They leave, looking for the Next Great Thing or the job that will provide them with Something More, but they can’t really articulate or define it. The search to ‘do more and be more’ is never-ending. Then in their 40s and 50s they start questioning their decisions, wondering if they’ve been going in circles.”

Know Your Talents (And Limits)

Still, there’s one question that torments all contenders: Am I deluded? In other words: How do I know if I’m swimming in a giant pool of denial?

Simple: You ask, says Peter Spevak, a psychologist at the Center for Applied Motivation, outside Washington, DC, and co-author of Empowering Underachievers: New Strategies to Guide Kids (8 - 18) to Personal Excellence. “We all have several data points—from friends, family, and coworkers—with which to gauge our competence, but we may have to ask what they really think.” Others often can more accurately assess traits or skills in which our egos are invested, such as our appearance or intelligence or ability to hold a high C. They can give real feedback about our aptitude.

But we have to listen. “A lot of times we have weird lenses on and we don’t see certain realities because they’re too unpleasant,” says Spevak.

Facing an unfavorable assessment can be painful, but it also may break you out of the Contender trap. From the time she was eight, Melissa Levis knew what she’d do with her life: Be a playwriting superstar of musical theater. Her aunt was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and, “I saw that living that life was not just a pipe dream,” says Levis.

After earning a master’s degree in musical theater writing from New York University, Levis had her first show, The Joys of Sex, performed off-Broadway, when she was 33. She expected Joys to run forever.

Instead, the play closed after two months. For many people, an off-Broadway production would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. But Levis had such high hopes for herself that she felt heartbroken and a little ashamed. She spent the summer at her parents’ home in Vermont, sulking. After a few weeks, she began volunteering as a music teacher at a day-care center near their house. Within a month she’d become wildly popular and even gotten her own kids’ show on local cable access. “By accident, I discovered how much fun I had singing with kids,” she says.

Levis decided to combine her disappointment about the play’s middling success with her newfound love of performing for kids. She formed a company, Lemonade Productions, and now writes and performs her own kids’ music, plays in Central Park, and is in negotiations for a national TV show. She hasn’t officially “made it” in terms of fame or even solid financial security, but “I feel so good,” she says. “Yesterday, these two little girls asked for my autograph. It’s like I’m Elvis in pink! I’ve found the application for both of my dreams, music and performing. It’s worked out better than I could have anticipated.”

Levis was honest with herself and clear-eyed enough to both see her limitations and reapply her strengths. But what if the personal and professional feedback isn’t as clear as a curtain going down in the theater? You listen to yourself, says Markus, which can be as difficult as hearing the truth from others. The question here isn’t, “ ‘Are you deluded?’ but, ‘Do you want to do the work?’ In any business, there are people who get the good jobs and don’t have the talent. But they’re doing the work.”

In short, while there are times when seeking “objective” feedback about your talent can be helpful, in some cases an external assessment is not as important as your own feelings and those of the people you love. “If it still gives you meaning and purpose and is not disrupting the lives of all the people you love, why not continue doing it your whole life, even if you never achieve the fame you’re going after?” says Lopez. “But if the people in your life are saying, ‘You’ve done this for a really long time and you’ve excelled and done well, but at this point we need health insurance for our family,’ that’s a more difficult choice.”

There are many situations in which flexibility is clearly better than perseverance, and when disappointment can actually spur you on to find something more suitable. “If someone tells you in the seventh grade that you’re really funny, maybe you need to get more training and skills. But if you’re 40 and still haven’t had any success—maybe your definition of success needs to change. Maybe it is OK to be a comedian at bar mitzvahs for the rest of your life,” says Robyn McKay, a psychologist in Phoenix.

But I Really Am Funny!

That’s all very nice for some people. But what about those of us who really do have the goods to live the life we want? Many of my friends agree that I can be as funny, almost, as Tina Fey. But still, no TV show. How do we get from here to there?

Try setting real goals, says Gregg Steinberg, a sports psychologist at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and author of Full Throttle: 122 Strategies to Supercharge Your Performance at Work. “People who aren’t successful typically aren’t goal-oriented.” Steinberg suggests setting an appropriate goal, creating clear strategies to reach it, and assessing your progress weekly or bimonthly. But don’t make comparative goals that pit you against someone else. “Take what you have and try to improve it each month.”

You can also feel more “in” your life by envisioning other options, says Spevak. “OK, so you want to be a CEO and in your company there’s only one CEO. What’s Plan B? Plan C? Plan D?” Having alternate visions of personal success lets you feel like the master of your life.

In other words, broaden your conception of what counts as “making it.” Take all the things you were passionate about from one goal and apply them somewhere else. Be limber. And remember, a huge amount of luck goes into any success. As Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) said in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, circumstances can keep you down. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”

If you aim to be a participant, rather than a star, you go a long way toward being a contender, whatever you do. “If you’re doing something positive in the world, if you’re productive, if you’re a player, then you’re a success. That’s my view. That’s the definition of a good life,” says Markus. “What American society needs is people showing up every day and working their butts off as best they can. A lot of things we call talent are just time on task.”

Or, as Thomas Edison said: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”

Or, as I say, that’s why God created deodorant.

As for me, I’m pretty OK with where I am. But I’m still making changes. True, I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, but I was recently accepted into a master’s degree program at Johns Hopkins. I have another book idea brewing. My boyfriend thinks I’m hilarious, and right now that feels pretty good.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still think Tina Fey and I would make a great comedy duo. In my dreams, I imagine the two of us waltzing onstage together to pick up our Emmys. One day, I hope she sees the light.

Beat the Contender Syndrome

Learn to love the life you’re living

Work Smart, Not Just Hard

“I write for three hours every day!” you say. “Why haven’t I sold a book?” It could be because you’re working on only one aspect of the book-selling business. “If your sentences are good, pay a lot of attention to what else goes into making a bestseller,” says Markus. “Working with an agent. Marketing. Being willing to push your work. You have to be smart in the sense of figuring out what goes into achieving this. We live under this illusion that somehow our brilliance will be seen in the world and people will come to us. That just never happens. A lot of people say ‘I’m willing to work hard.’ But you have to work on the right things at the right time.”

Construct a Dazzling Back-Up Plan

While having a back-up plan might sound like you’re giving up before you start, elaborating on exciting alternatives is a key to feeling successful. We can all do a variety of things, and be happy doing them. But make sure your Plan B includes aspects of the original dream that excite you, says Shane Lopez, a psychologist who consults with college athletes on their long-term visions. “Athletes need a really meaningful Plan B because so many don’t have the chance to go pro. Usually the plan involves a stage and athletics and some type of performance. They might envision being a sportscaster, a coach, or an agent. They’re still involved in sports and still have a little limelight and are in the culture they found appealing.”

Markus says that not having a Plan B can be a recipe for disappointment. “If you want to be an opera singer, the odds are, you’re not going to get to do it, just because of the numbers. Any of those professions where very few people make it, you should know how long you want to try, and know what you’re going to do next.”

Keep a List of Proud Moments

Every night, write down three to five things you feel proud about from that day. Recording your accomplishments keeps them front and center in your mind, an exercise that helps crowd out negative rumination. “People with the [contender] syndrome tend to forget or neglect all the things they do well,” says Barry Lubetkin, a psychologist in Manhattan and author of Bailing Out: How to Get Out of a Bad Relationship and Survive. Lubetkin advises including small moments that made you feel good, like helping a friend or giving a dollar to a beggar, as well as accomplishments such as conquering your urge to procrastinate. Journaling proud moments won’t instantly make you satisfied with your life, but it will shore up your positive self-esteem, creating an inner goodwill that can help you see disappointment as part of a broader context rather than as personal failure.

Practice Some Downward-Facing Comparison

Though downward comparison may not come naturally, practicing it helps you enjoy your life, as it is now. “When you start worrying, ‘I don’t have enough money,’ and then you realize about 3 billion people on the planet live on less than $2 a day, you get flooded with gratitude,” says Josh Baran, author of The Dao of Now and a former Zen monk. “Suddenly you feel grateful for the glass of water you’re drinking.”

Much of our comparative thinking is triggered by seeing people with more material goods, and concluding that they’re living better lives. But constantly working to rake in more stuff can prevent us from enjoying what we have. “We’re addicted to planning and scheming, and so we miss the simple joy of our lives.”

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