The Often Missing Element

I was just thinking about the Summer Olympics the other night. While I can hold my own in a lot of sports, it’s my twin brother Vince (no we’re not identical) who received the Olympic share of the athletic genes from our family’s gene pool. The Summer Games are my favorite – they have all the sports I love to watch (but could never do) like 10 meter diving, gymnastics and marathon running – as well as the sports I can play like volleyball, basketball (I was the best dribbler on my preschool team) and ping-pong. Now, I get cold just thinking about the Winter Games and all that snow. Plus who wants to slide down a mountain on their butt? Summer is my favorite.

Watching the Summer Olympics is always an engaging pastime for me but finding time in my busy schedule to actually sit down and watch them is a different story. The spectacle of the top athletes in the world, women, some hunky men, all competing against one another while at the pinnacle of their physical condition and training, I find just incredible, but it’s hard for me to find time to watch their Olympic feats.

I was really lucky the other day. Tom and I were at a friend’s house on the final Saturday night of the 2008 Games. The video-babysitter was on when we arrived and was already tuned to the broadcast of the final competitions. After dinner as we sat around and sipped our cups of healthy green tea (actually large goblets of red wine), we watched some of the final medal rounds.

When the men’s 10 meter diving came on I was immediately excited (and not just by thoughts of men in Speedos). The announcer let on that the Chinese team was overpowering the competition. They’d already taken 7 of the 8 gold medals for diving and were well on their way to a sweep of the entire Olympics. Their main contender Zhou Luxin had a solid lead of more than 30 points going into the sixth and final round.

Australian diver Matthew Mitcham had started the day in ninth place after a poor first dive. Watching him climb out of the pool and head for the warming showers I was struck by his attitude. Even though he was behind and looked like he had no chance of winning a medal, or even finishing in the top five, he seemed to be having the time of his life. His joy was expressed in every movement. He seemed excited just to be diving in the Olympics! After his fourth dive he had moved up to third place and after his fifth, into second! Each time he came from the pool he looked happier than the last. He smiled and waved at the cameras like it was one of the happiest days of his life – which it later turned out to be.

The other divers looked like they were dealing with the stress of the competition, especially in light of the commanding lead held by Zhou. None of them seemed to be having fun. The Americans, who’d had high hopes coming in, looked especially stressed. Buddhists believe that comparison is the killer of joy. That certainly was true in the Water Cube in Beijing, at least for everyone but Matthew. He was obviously full of joy.

Despite his slow start, you could see his inner joy had released his creative capacity and athletic power. Watching him smile and wave to the camera after each dive it was hard to believe that he’d actually quit diving back in 2006, burned out and battling with depression. He described his feelings in the pool that day in a later interview saying “I didn’t feel that much pressure from the Chinese. I didn’t feel any pressure from anybody. I was not going to let anything external affect how I was feeling. Only what’s in your mind can affect how you dive.”

In the last dive Matthew was behind the leader Zhou by over 30 points. On Zhou’s fifth dive he’d scored three perfect tens. If Matthew was comparing himself to Zhou he was certainly in trouble. At this point, if I were Matthew, I’d be thinking “Okay, let’s not embarrass ourselves with a belly-flop, let’s just finish,” but that’s not what was happening.

On the final dive, one that should have been a textbook, no-brainer clincher, Zhou entered crookedly, scoring only 74.80 points. Matthew was next on that 30+ ft. platform and his final dive, a back 2½ somersault with 1½ twists and a 3.8 degree of difficulty(!), not only earned him four perfect ten scores, but a total of 112.10 points making it the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history!

When he came out of the water you could tell he felt good about his dive even though he didn’t yet realize he’d gotten the gold. He was just ecstatic about his performance. His inner joy was radiating so strongly on the outside.

Later, I thought about his words “I was not going to let anything external affect how I was feeling. Only what’s in your mind can affect how you dive.” How true that is – not just in diving into water, but diving into life and diving into your legal nurse consulting business.

How many of us have let comparison to others rob us of our inner joy? How many of us let something external affect our joy? I’m not a saint (surprised?), so a woman with a more expensive purse or a better looking husband (no such thing), not to mention those darn 48 education companies ahead of me in the Inc. 5000, can rob me of my inner joy. Not to mention that #%!!&# slow driver in front of me or that clueless person who reaches the front of the line in Starbucks without a clue what they want, makes me want to forget my inner Buddha and instead become a push-them-into-oncoming-traffic-kinda-gal.

Without that inner joy (or caffeine), I’m not putting in the 110% I need to make my company grow, to make my family feel loved or to just do my job. I’m not putting even 5% into myself to make me the person I am. Instead, I’m subtracting, dividing and devising, creating ways to hold myself down, back and under. I’m suddenly my own worst enemy. My picture should be in the post office or on “America’s Least-Wanted,” not on the cover of “V.”

There’s always someone at the gym who’s lifting a heavier weight than I am (darn him) or another businesswoman whose success has come easier to her. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, to envy their success or to covet something they own or wish you’d thought of something they’ve done first. Nothing robs me of my inner joy faster than to slip into what I call “comparison stopping.”

I call it that because it not only stops my creativity and productivity, but it keeps me from being myself and turns me into a person who wants to be someone else. When I find myself in that state (yes I do more often than you might believe), I try and take a step back and reset my thinking to recover my joy, to recover the fun my comparison has stopped.

When you find yourself “comparison stopping” step back. Take a minute. We all have something to be joyful about. Look around you. Take a deep breath – take several more. Look at pictures of your family, pet your cat or just think about that glass of wine with dinner (always works for me). Be joyful. Life is way too short. We all have challenges but how we choose to face them is what makes some people gold medalists.

Matthew Mitcham’s inner joy carried him to a gold medal in the Summer Olympics. He told a reporter “I went into the competition just wanting to do six good dives… only in my wildest dreams, I got the gold medal.” His wildest dreams came true and he practically leaped onto the medal platform pumping his arms in the air in celebration. He was expressing the joy he’d felt all along – the joy that carried him through five very good dives and culminating in one great dive.

Where will your joy carry you? I know mine won’t be off a 10 meter board (I don’t like heights) or to a gold medal for basketball in the Olympics, or will it? With enough inner joy anything is possible.