From Chapter One (revised edition):
All of the political and religious leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals, entertainers, athletes, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, the unemployed, the defendants, plaintiffs, victims and criminals in the world, whether they make the front page or the nightly news or not, are playing their own games. As is every one of us. The games vary according to player eligibility, rules of conduct, and respective value to individual, culture and society, but they are similar in that success—winning the game—is preferred over failure—losing the game.
Success looms as one of the most deeply pervasive, and ironically, one of the most nebulous concepts with which we humans negotiate. Early individual development and experience, along with cultural influences and societal resources, inevitably contribute to both what we believe about success and how we hold our beliefs. Some of us see title, power, fame, fortune, or victory over an opponent as a true symbol of success. The boundary line, the bottom line, the final score or the grand prize determine whether and to what degree we have succeeded. Each of these, as a recognized goal, has value: we would all rather win than lose—make, rather than lose money; finish ahead of, rather than behind, our opponent(s); in essence, attain or achieve that which we have set before us as a goal. It is when winning, achieving the goal, literally matters more than anything else that we begin to have problems.
Nothing is more important than the quality of effort that goes into an endeavor. This quality of effort will strongly influence whether the final goal is achieved at all, yet it is often sadly (or gleefully) neglected while the prospective achiever flails away, blindly focusing on nothing but the coveted prize. The prize is not wrong or bad—it’s simply the perceived reason for participating or competing. Again, blindly focusing on nothing but the coveted prize, not the prize itself, is our primary concern.
Occasionally, our extraordinary or superior talent or an opponent’s lower quality of effort will allow us to achieve our goal or attain the prize. Such achievement, despite its visible signs of “victory,” can be empty and ephemeral in its satisfaction for the victor. A fortunate genetic arrangement or a competitor’s default cannot replace our human need to enjoy the fruits of our labor—sure we may enjoy a “lucky break” from time to time, but we really do derive satisfaction from a “job well done.” This joy can only be realized as the result of a quality effort; victories attained without a quality effort provide superficial satisfaction grounded in result, not in the integration of effort and result—cause and effect. We will look more deeply into this issue in Chapter Four when we explore “the well-played loss” vs. “the poorly-played win.”
Without a genuine focus on the quality of effort, participants who fall short of their perceived final goal, be it a hostage release, an end to racism, a profit margin, world peace, the next free throw, or a national championship, feel as though they have wasted their time—that they have failed—the prize is not theirs. With a genuine focus on the quality of effort, participants who fall short of their perceived final goal are able to assess their participation and process, derive real satisfaction from their effort, and learn valuable lessons from the entire experience.
The stakes, of course, vary, and it is never our intention to dismiss or minimize the real feelings and tangible results of unmet goals. Despite the dramas that unfold in our little league, scholastic, collegiate, world and professional arenas, however, sport remains a relatively safe place within which to learn, experience, and negotiate winning, losing, triumph, disaster, success and failure. When the hostage negotiator comes up short, innocent lives may be lost; when we miss the free throw, depending on the score and the time remaining, we may still salvage the game, the season, even the championship.
The groundbreaking 1984 women’s Olympic marathon did not end in failure for silver medalist, Grete Waitz, because Joan Benoit Samuelson ran a great race. No one lost that particular race, and we could argue on one level that qualifying for an Olympic event is itself a great victory. Participants in any event span a continuum that includes those whose histories suggest they have a real chance at winning, those whose histories suggest that they are happy just to be “in the game,” and lots of people in between. Each will have his or her own standards for success. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life did not end in failure when he was assassinated in 1968. His heroic struggle for an end to poverty and racism remains a solid example of exemplary effort directed toward a final goal that is yet to be achieved.
A genuine effort in any endeavor improves the quality of the participant. The improvement might be in a physical skill, a body of knowledge, an emotional awareness, or a more inclusive, evolved view of the self and the rest of the world; if the effort is authentic, the improvement will be there. It may not always jump out and grab us by the throat; it might tap us gently on the shoulder or whisper in our ear. We must feel it—listen to it.
If the only reason we’re shooting five hundred jump shots a day, studying each evening for six hours, or working eighteen-hour days is to win the scoring title, win the scholarship, or win the promotion, we significantly reduce our odds for success. If we complement these goals with an enjoyment of shooting, studying and working, and a desire to improve our shooting, master the subject matter, and develop our professional competence, there is virtually no way that we can fail. The effort must count for something in our lives.
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Copyright © 1991, 2010 by Reggie Marra
All rights reserved