July 12, 2010

Why We Fail

“The quality of a zen student’s practice is defined as much by how he sweeps the courtyard as by how he sits in meditation.” – George Leonard, Aikido Master, from the book Mastery


I hate to fail. As a professional athlete I trained with all my strength, all my mind, and all my heart. I obsessed about winning. I gave my life to the pursuit of being one of the best baseball players in the world. I failed.


Determined to do anything and everything necessary to achieve my goal, my one-track mind pushed me but also hurt me. I feared failure. Firmly attached to the results of my performance–fixated on results–I lost much of myself in my obsession with achievement.


The key to extraordinary results is to pursue mastery, unattached to success or failure. The student of mastery sets his goals, be it an Olympic gold medal, hitting .300, or winning a tournament, but then focuses on the fundamental aspects of mastery: self-awareness, self-education, and self-discipline.


Mastery is the pursuit of greater vision, in-depth learning, and delayed gratification. This is extremely difficult in a North American culture fixated on immediate pleasure. Every day we are presented with opportunities to practice mastery in activities we normally try to rush through (doing the laundry, washing dishes, standing in line, etc.).


George Leonard explains:


“Our preoccupation with goals, results, and the quick fix has separated us from our own experiences. To put it more starkly, it has robbed us of countless hours of the time of our lives. We awaken in the morning and hurry to get dressed. (Getting dressed doesn’t count). We hurry to eat breakfast so that we can leave for work. (Getting to work doesn’t count.) Maybe work will be interesting and satisfying and we won’t have to simply endure it while waiting for lunchtime to come. And maybe lunch will bring a warm, intimate meeting, with fascinating conversation. But maybe not.”


– from Chapter 8, Zoe and the Mindset for Growth, Inner Excellence

We fail because we obsess about the future and cannot be present in the moment. In our relentless pursuit we focus so much on achievement that we miss lessons along the way. We’re busy but not growing; accumulating knowledge but not wisdom.


To pursue mastery is to train your mind; to learn how to learn. Top performers show great propensity for creativity, which comes from periods of hard work mixed with times of rest and play. The very best have learned how to shut down their mind so they can think new thoughts instead of the repeating the same old ones every day (as most of us do). This is extremely difficult of course.


The busyness of life tempers our ability to see beyond our limitations as we get caught up in our circumstances. Busyness is not just an obstacle, but perhaps even violent opposition to creativity and high achievement. Consider the words of Trappist Monk Thomas Merton:


“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence.”


We fail because we fail to learn. We sweep the courtyard simply to get it done. We perform only to win the prize. We fail because we’ve grown so attached to what we want that we miss out on the crucial moments along the way.


NOTE: Jim Fannin (who wrote the forward to Inner Excellence) is a Performance Coach to World Champions. On July 12, 2010 I was interviewed for his radio show.