There is a saying in combat sports that you are only as good as your last fight. It is continually uttered by analysts, coaches, fighters, and fans. It refers to the fickle nature of the masses. Win? You are a God, incapable of failing. Lose? A worthless bum who should retire. As the athlete, it is your responsibility to protect your mind from the horde of internet trolls. It really is part of the job at all levels and across all creative endeavors that offer up a product for judgment. Although you may not be publicly criticized we all have an internal critic that is as bad, if not worse than anyone else we might meet. 

I grabbed dinner with a friend a couple of weeks ago to discuss an idea. He’s well connected in a community and I was looking for insight into the culture. I started to ask questions regarding past companies and attitudes and he mentioned that being fired from a previous company over a year ago was something that still deeply bothers him and forces him to question his worth. The quote he used was “back playing on the B team”, the idea being that his current position and company was a demotion from where he had been previously. The conversation made me think about the ideas of self-worth and the lens through which we choose to view ourselves.

I completely understand his feelings, for a very long time, 10 years, my identity as an individual was tied to my performance inside the cage. I was a fighter, not someone who fights and if I was a fighter it meant I was only as good as my last fight. Truthfully, it ran much deeper than that, the number of times you can fight in a year is limited – smashing the hard parts of your body off of another trained professional is damaging and requires rest. Because I wasn’t fighting every week practice became the ‘fight’ that I would judge myself by.

Yes, how I would rate my worth was based on the result of practice, a word that means to regularly perform a skill for improvement! As if I should already understand how to perform these skills despite never being exposed to them. A good day of practice would mean the radio blasting on the way home, a quick stop for flowers, and a night spent relaxing with friends or a drink with my partner. A bad day at practice meant I was worthless, that I didn’t deserve the gifts I had earned and that everyone around me was going to have to deal with a level of self-pity and sulking that could rival any 6-year old. Never mind that my family loves me, my partner is amazing, I get to work on other dope projects all the time and live in the greatest city in the world. None of that would matter, I’m a fighter and I had a terrible day fighting you better believe everyone else is about to have a terrible day. 

When I lost a real fight the aftermath was even worse! I fought in Pittsburgh a couple years ago, the day before my birthday. Unfortunately, my opponent was better than me that night – much better – and it didn’t go my way, which made for a really long drive home. When I walked into the house the next day sitting in the fridge for my birthday was a cherry cheesecake – which I love – from my favourite spot. Instead of turning around and saying thank you for thinking of me, I muttered something about ‘not even wanting it’ and slammed the door shut. My entire life worth in that moment was predicated on the result of a highly volatile 50/50 gamble. Not that I had just passed my 26th year on this planet and accomplished much more than I ever hoped, that I had a life full of great relationships and was getting paid to compete professionally in a sport I love. Nope, I had to go and drag myself and everyone around me down because putting it all on red hadn’t paid off last night so let’s be a miserable SOB for the next 2 weeks. 

I wish I could say that I learned my lesson then and there but that would be a lie. Like my friend who a year later still feels the sting of being let go, I carried that loss with me for a very long time.  I will never pretend that ‘success’ doesn’t matter. That it shouldn’t hurt but how we define success is what is important. It took an illness that forced me away from the sport I love for nearly 2 years for me to realize that who I am is not defined by a single what.  

I’ll say it again. 

Our Who Should Never Be Defined By A Single What. 

Fighting was my narrow subset through which I defined success. My friend’s chosen ‘success marker’ was his career. He completely overlooked all the other areas of his life that are full and instead focused on one small section of who he is. Every one of us is guilty of this, often daily. If cars are your thing you feel like a loser because your Honda Fit isn’t a Porsche Cayenne, or your Porsche Cayenne isn’t a Buggati. If it’s tennis then you don’t care that you won the club championships because you’re not Roger Federer. Entrepreneurship? Zuckerberg, Bezos or it’s a bust. Investing? Buffet. Cooking? Massimo Bottura. 

The list goes on forever and ever. The problem with defining our success by one individual subset is that unless you become the 1 percent of the 1 percent you will forever feel inadequate and completely unsatisfied with what you have. I would celebrate a win, 6 – 8 weeks of suffocating hard work for all of 5 minutes before the feeling would fade and I would already be looking for what was next. That is a sad thought, that I lacked the ability to enjoy hard-earned rewards, rewards gained by sacrificing my body. 

Obsessive fixation on the outcome, more specifically one outcome will bring with it feelings of isolation and worthlessness. We need more. More connection. More variety. More buckets to draw from. More places to find worth and feel success, because unfortunately becoming the very best in the world is still not enough for contentment.

It took me a very long and painful time to realize this but even once I understood I had an unhealthy mindset it was not easy to alter. Intellectual understanding is not enough. You need to believe deeply, emotionally. Quitting smoking is a great example, the smoker understands that the act is bad for them. They see the infographics, feel shortness of breath and hear the advice of their doctor. They intellectually understand but are not emotionally committed to tossing the cigarettes away – of course, the nicotine plays a factor – and as a result, the average smoker attempts to quit over 6 times before being successful. 

So how can we shift our worth paradigm?

Re-definition and Gratitude. 

Redefining success and the factors that you use to quantify it is an absolute must. We need to realize all the amazing things we have to be grateful for them. It seems basic and perhaps a touch analytical but I broke my life down into categories. I know nothing about you but imagine your life is divided up daily into something similar to the following: Career, Relationships, Passion 1, Passion 2. This seems to be the typical spread or at least a variation of. There are hundreds of potential additional categories and often they will crossover which is why you must do the exercise for yourself creating 4-5 main columns. 

Once I had broken down the separate categories I started to write down one person or item that I was grateful for in 2-3 of the categories each day, rotating through them during the week. I would suggest being very diligent in the first few months, write it down with a paper and pen and do it everyday. In the evening I would revisit my categories and how well I did in each. More often than not I had dropped the ball in one of them but it was more easily dealt with when I had 2-3 other success’s to remind me that I am not a loser. It was also motivating to know if I had succeeded in of the categories it meant I could perform better in the ‘failed’ areas tomorrow. Competence and confidence work in an amazing loop. I also began creating space to be upset about poor performances in any category but put a time limit on emotionally obsessing over it. It has allowed me to acknowledge that I care about the outcome but in a more healthy and productive way. If I’m upset I will allow myself the time it takes me to drive to my next appointment but when I get out of the car I have to be ready to accept the outcome and move forward. The quicker we can reach acceptance the faster we can progress. 

Worried that diversifying your life will negatively impact your performance? That you won’t be as focused on your task?

Probably not. I have spent a lot of time with high performers, some of whom are arguable the very best at their discipline and they draw worth from several places. They know a bad day in their sport or job does not define them and that having different activities and people to spend time with away from their main pursuit makes them better. My fighting has gotten 10x better since I’ve stopped giving a shit if I win or lose! No longer being defined by an outcome has removed the tension and allowed me to grow my skill set without the constant interference of ego. This has allowed me to appreciate all the areas of my life more and be present when it is time to execute. Gone are the days of attempting to be serious and staring at the wall, instead I get to enjoy every area and realize that nothing matters as much as I thought it did.  

Leave a Reply