Monday, October 22, 2012

How the Pursuit of Success is Destroying Us

I've never followed cycling, but like everyone else in the world, I've heard of Lance Armstrong.  And I grew up with a father who competed in multiple sports–cycling, running, swimming–so I know about the hours of training and work that go into something like that.  Competing in those kinds of events is about pushing the limits of how far the body can go.

Finding out that the proof is practically indisputable that Armstrong and many others are guilty of using performance enhancing drugs is a huge blow.  It's a shameful thing.  And it points to a larger societal problem.

I've always had a casual relationship with success.  I hacked computer games when I couldn't beat them, I tried various hobbies until I'd achieved some goal and grew bored.  I've never cared much for money.  I like it when I have it, live without it when I don't.  I've never needed to have the best.  I'm content with a 5 year-old computer, and a nice car that I like to drive.  I may never be able to support myself on my writing, but I'm happy that publishers continue to buy my books (and that readers continue to read them!)

But I've always felt the pressure to do more, be more, be better.  I've always been told that I'm not living up to my potential.  No matter that I'm happy where I am, doing what I do; according to some people, I'm failing to live up to some invisible societal standard.

We live in this world where success is measured by money or standing or trophies or the size of a person's car.  I'm not going to apologize for Armstrong or try to justify his crimes, but I can only imagine the pressure to succeed that he felt.  It must have been intense to have driven him to deceive the world on such a huge and shameful scale.

Maybe, though, if we measured success by how happy a person is or by the things they give back to this world, people wouldn't be driven to such lengths.  High school kids wouldn't abuse amphetamines in order to do better so that they could get into a better college.  Athletes wouldn't take drugs to perform better.

Or maybe we should discontinue bans on such substances.  If we've reached the limits of human potential, maybe we should allow athletes and scholars to move beyond human potential.  Let everyone dope up and be better.

But what is better?

I was talking to my mom the other day and we were talking about success.  What success meant.  My little brother always said he wanted nothing more than to work on a boat.  All growing up, that's what he wanted.  And he's got that.  He works on a yacht.  To me, how much he makes or what things he owns is irrelevant.  He's living the life he always wanted to lead.  I always said I wanted to be a writer.  Despite also having a regular day job, I am a writer.  I write books that publishers publish, that bookstores stock, and that readers read.  I am doing what I always wanted to do.

My sales numbers don't matter.  My bank account is irrelevant.  I am happy.  I am successful.

And when I die, I'll know that the things I've achieved are mine.  I'll know that I lived the life I wanted to lead.

To me...that's success.


  1. The thing that really gets me about this kind of stuff is that Armstrong was probably already the most talented cyclist in the world. If PEDs never existed, he probably still would have won a lot of tours. So the ethics get really murky.

    For example, if everyone was taking them but him, and he didn't take them, and never got famous, how much would he have raised for cancer? I don't mean to sound like it's totally justified, just that I don't think life is always that simple.

    ESPN had a great 30 for 30 special about Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson on the other night, called 9.79*

    Check it out if you get the chance.

    Otherwise? I completely agree. If I can sell books, and pay my bills, and love my kids, and walk my dog, and not go hungry? I'm good.

    1. Agreed about his talent. However the argument that he did a lot of good with his fame doesn't hold water to me. I don't view the world completely black and white–I get that sometimes the ends can justify the means. I understand that sometimes murky ethics can lead to some wonderful ends. But in the case of someone like Armstrong, who was a role model to kids, and a hero to many adults, it should be black and white. Because no matter what good he's done with the fame he achieved, it will forever be tainted by the doping scandal. I think the harm here, the lesson kids might learn that they should seek success by any means necessary, is worse than any loss society might have endured if Armstrong had never gotten famous at all.

      I'll definitely watch it. I'm against the performance enhancing drugs, but I do understand that the world isn't simple. That's why I suggest that if PEDs are here to stay, that they should do away with the ban on them and allow all competitors to use them in order to keep the playing field level. The big crime here isn't that Armstrong took drugs, it's that he did it and then lied to the world, claiming that he was completely clean and that he had earned those achievements without the drugs. That, I think, is the worst part of it.


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