I suppose it’s our fault — just because everything generational usually is. Too many of our kids expect life to be easy and give up too easily when it isn’t. Too many of them are quickly discouraged by setbacks and abandon a goal rather than change their approach. Why? I told you. It’s our fault. We wanted them to believe they could do anything. We wanted them to be happy.
Our resultant parenting style emphasized that trying hard was as good as achieving, that potential was worthy of praise, that stress was a bad thing, and that experiencing failure would damage self-esteem. I’m not blaming anyone here. I was party to all this too. Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s breathed the air of the human potential movement whether we were conscious of it or not. Self-esteem became a goal, rather than an outcome of living well. Self-actualization became more valued than self-sacrifice. Self-gratification sometimes became the measure of what one did instead of benefit for the whole.
The result of this thinking for at least some of the kids some of the time is that they either set happiness as a goal or are waiting for happiness to magically happen. Either stance is a setup for disappointment. As the athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics showed us again and again, happiness is an outcome of hard work and discipline. It is the result of having met a set goal. It is not the goal in and of itself.
Consider Evan Lysachek, the American figure skater. His backstory is one of daily grunt work in a gym. At times, he didn’t want to do it. At times, he asked himself and probably his coach why he should yet again practice a move that he knew he had mastered years ago. At times, I’m sure he would rather have rolled over for some extra sleep instead of facing yet more hours in the gym or on practice ice. But he didn’t give in to those thoughts. Instead, he kept at it; day after day, year after year. His eyes were on the goal of performing with excellence; of showing himself and the world what he could do. And he did. He skated the skate of his life and won the gold.
Or how about Lindsey Vonn, who went into the Games with high hopes and an injured shin. I’m sure she wasn’t happy to be skiing on a painful leg. I’m certain there were days she wondered if it was worth it. I’m reasonably positive that there were times she asked herself “why me” and wanted to throw in the towel. But she had been injured before. She knew how to gauge the seriousness of her injury and the wisdom of continuing on. Having decided she could do it, sheer determination and grit helped her ski in spite of her physical pain and in spite of whatever doubts she let herself think about. The result: A gold medal run that ended with a triumphant scream of joy.
Discipline isn’t always merely physical. Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno went through the same rebellious and undisciplined stage that most adolescents do. His father recognized the talent and potential — but not the attitude — of a winner. He put his son in a big time “time out,” setting him out in a cabin in the woods for a couple of weeks to think it all over. Ohno did. He came away from the experience with a newfound focus and a renewal of his personal passion for his sport. Now he is America’s most decorated winter Olympian.
And consider Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother and best friend only days before her Olympic performance. No one would have blamed her if she had withdrawn or skated badly – except her. She drew on the love for her mother and her love for her sport and made her performance a tribute to both, winning bronze and the enormous respect of everyone watching.
I’m told by a coach friend of mine that every athlete knows the pain of regret is far more sharp and long-lasting than the pain of discipline. It would be terrible to miss a spot on the podium thinking “if only I hadn’t skipped that practice or avoided that exercise.” It would be hard to live down the thought “I could have done better if only . . .” It would be impossible to excuse a bad performance due to a bad attitude. Successful athletes set reasonable goals and train, and train, and train some more. They know they won’t like it every minute. They understand that it is sometimes grueling. They don’t expect to be ecstatic during every push for more. They know that attitude counts as much as potential, that their outlook can decide the outcome. Their passion for their sport and for excellence drives them to work hard. If they win, they shout for joy. If they lose, they have the self-satisfaction of knowing they did their best.
Not everyone can be an Olympic star. But every kid has the potential to be an Olympian in how they approach their chosen path. When passion, attitude and hard, hard work are brought to bear on a goal, there is no such thing as failure, even when the outcome is less than gold. As parents we need to help our kids understand that happiness isn’t a goal. It’s the natural result of truly, steadily giving our best in whatever we set out to do.