Winning the Bronze Medal in Life: What My Kindergartener Can Teach Us
Many of us put a lot of pressure upon ourselves to achieve. When we don’t live up to our expectations, we are often very hard on ourselves. Furthermore, we have an incredible tendency to compare ourselves to other people. If we don’t live up to these imaginary lines of success that we have created in our heads, then we suffer. I want to offer an alternative to this suffering, a lesson we can all learn, courtesy of my six-year-old daughter.
Last week at school, an awards ceremony was held to recognize reading achievement. Usually, the younger children all receive awards while the older children compete against one another for gold, silver, and bronze medals. Our children had attended this school for quite some time, and my son had won a gold medal every year. This year, for some reason, they decided that the kindergarteners should be “competitive” too. What a world we live in!
It had been decided that the “competition” between kindergarteners would be based upon the number of sheets of paper they turned in throughout the school year, each sheet of paper representing one book. Now, my daughter loves books and loves to read. She takes after her mom and dad in that respect! Unfortunately, my wife and I were unaware of this new rule and although my daughter had definitely read enough books to qualify for a gold medal, we hadn’t turned in papers for all of the books she had read.
When I arrived at the ceremony, I realized that my daughter was one of the few kindergarteners to receive a bronze medal. Apparently, most of the other parents had caught on to the competition’s new rules. In fact, almost all of the kids were gold medalists! Now, my wife and I didn’t care which medal our daughter received, because we knew that she loves reading and school, and that’s what is important to us. But I watched my daughter closely in order to gauge her reaction. Because she is in kindergarten and still quite young, she was so excited when she got her bronze medal. When she sat down, she showed all of her friends, smiling brightly. When her friends all came back with their silver and gold medals, my daughter was just as excited and happy. She wasn’t comparing herself against the other kindergarteners, and instead, was excited about her own accomplishment.
There is a lesson here for all of us. In life, the second we start comparing ourselves to other people, there is a potential for us to suffer. We must remember that we won’t always win gold medals in life; none of us will! We will all occasionally experience failure and we will all have set backs. If we constantly compare ourselves to other people, we will experience constant suffering. No matter how successful we are, there will always be someone who is more successful. Let me give you an example. I work with people who have two, sometimes three homes. If these people have a beautiful home on the beach, they don’t compare their home to ones like yours and mine, but instead they compare their home to the other beach homes. These people compare their first home to their second, or they compare themselves having two homes to those who have three homes, and so on. We must remember that if we compare ourselves to other people, we are going to suffer. To be happy, we must stop doing this!
The great wisdom we can gain from my daughter is that she wasn’t comparing herself with others. Instead, she was excited about her own individual accomplishment and celebrated her excitement. We can do the same; any of us can! Suppose, for example, upon graduating from high school, you didn’t pursue further education. Many people must or choose not to attend college, and that’s okay. There is absolutely no need to compare ourselves to others who possess a college degree while we have none, or who possess a Master’s Degree while we only have a Bachelor’s Degree, etc. Instead, let’s celebrate what we DO have. Let’s celebrate our children, our jobs, our friends, our memories, our life! All we have to do is focus upon what we DO have in our life, and live it to the fullest. In doing so, we will lead a beautiful life because we will truly realize that every life is beautiful. However, the second we start comparing our lives to those of others, we will start suffering. Let us remember that even if we win today, tomorrow we may lose. It is much better not to play the “comparison game,” instead celebrating our own lives as they are. Celebrating what we do have is a better way to live and is one of the key components of happiness.
To stop playing the “comparison game,” we need to do two things. First, we have to accept the fact that comparing ourselves to others isn’t good for us and that it will cause suffering. Sooner or later, we are going to lose. Wouldn’t it be better to do something for the love of it, not caring if we win or lose? It is not that we can’t still be competitive, but if we lose, we should keep a smile on our face and say, “Hey, I had a great time doing that whether I won or lost.” As long as we need our self-esteem to be validated externally, we will suffer. We play the “comparison game” because we want others to think highly of us. We must remember that no matter how highly others think of us, their opinions are really not going to make any difference.
It is not hard to prove this. Think of all the successful or famous people in this world. Are they always happier than a regular Joe? Quite often, the answer is “no.” Successful or famous people still commit suicide and still do destructive things to themselves and to their careers. If it were true that being “the best” or being “on top” will make you happier, then all of the successful or famous people should be happy all of the time. But they’re not always happy. How many times do we witness people who are “on top” leading a path of self-destruction? Being a CEO, a famous movie star, or whatever successful person we can think of isn’t necessarily the way to find happiness. It is far better to do what we love just for the love of it and to enjoy life as we are living it. When we are passionate about what we’re doing and we’re unconcerned about what others think of us, then we are happy. We must remember that the “game of success” can change in a heartbeat.
If you believe, as I do, that constantly comparing our achievements is not good for us, then what do we do? How do we make sure we don’t compare ourselves with others? The second key is awareness. We are conditioned at a very young age to compare ourselves with others. Recall the early conditioning taking place in my daughter’s kindergarten class, where the school changed how medals were awarded. We must un-condition or re-condition ourselves. The way we can accomplish this is through awareness. Throughout the day, we need to be mindful and watch our thoughts, observing how often we compare ourselves to other people. “Is she more beautiful?” “Does he have a nicer car?” “Do they have a nicer home?” These types of thoughts and comparisons go on and on. If we become aware of our thoughts, then we can change them. For example, let’s say we are driving our car and perhaps a “nicer” car drives by. We can look at that “nicer” car, feeling envious and saying things like, “Oh, they have a nicer car! Wow! They must have more money,” and so on. But instead, if we distract our thoughts and do something else besides making a comparison, then this constant comparing will happen less often. We must also be careful of other people who love to play this “comparison game.” Some people really play this game for keeps! These people look down at us because of what they perceive to be our “failures” and are always talking about other people or their own successes. We do not need to hang around these people! They are kind of like drug addicts, in that the “comparison game” can be intensely addictive. Would we want to have drug addicts as friends? Probably not! People can get so caught up in always trying to be better than someone else. This way of living is purely self-destructive because if we live this way, we’ll never be good enough.
One of my very close friends drives an old truck, even though he does well financially. He is extremely unpretentious, and that’s why he is one of my good friends. Have friends that don’t play the “comparison game.” If you find yourself surrounded people who are playing the game, just change the subject and walk away. You will find that once you become more aware of it, you’ll participate less, and life will become much easier and will flow much better. So like my daughter, let’s celebrate the bronze medals we get in life as joyfully as the gold medals. Just living is worth celebrating! If we manage to do that, then we will find that we are much happier and will enjoy life so much more.
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and meditation expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years. A contributing writer to Psychology Today, he has authored numerous books and creates a weekly podcast on happiness at www.HappinessPodcast.org He also creates a weekly podcast on meditation, http://www.MeditationForHealthPodcast.com and a weekly podcast on spiritual enlightenment, http://www.EnlightenmentPodcast.com His retreat schedules can be found at http://www.HolisticRetreats.tv You also might find his blog useful at www.Meditation-Enlightenment.com If you are interested in having Dr. Puff speak to your organization or company, you can learn more about his speaking services at http://www.SuccessBeyondYourImagination.com