What does it take to be the greatest?
Hard work. Dedication. Self-belief. Sacrifice. Commitment. Resilience. And, yes, talent.
Alpine skier Mikaela Schiffrin ended the 2022–2023 season as the uncontested greatest of all time (GOAT )—male or female— having broken Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark’s 34-year record for the most World Cup wins. Mikaela’s 87th World Cup win (which she has already increased to 88) was just one of her many records, including being the first skier to win the gold medal in each of the six Alpine disciplines. At just 28 years of age, Mikaela is far from done.
Tom Brady—another GOAT— just retired after an unheard of 23-year NFL career that included 15 pro bowl appearances, three MVP Awards, seven Super Bowl wins and an array of records for touchdowns, passes and a long list of other player stats. Kickers last that long but not quarterbacks…unless you’re Tom Brady.
Besides both being insanely successful, these two amazing people faced challenges and setbacks, some private and some very public, including Shiffrin’s “embarrassing” experience at last year’s Beijing Olympics that included three disqualifications for missing gates. Mikaela Shiffrin never misses gates. Tom Brady started as a third-string quarterback at Michigan and wasn’t drafted into the NFL until the six round—not exactly what you’d expect given his professional successes.
Do you know what neither of them did in the face of those challenges? Complain or blame.
Nobody achieves success as a victim. I heard this line from Greg Gutfeld, a leader in late-night talk shows, and it rang so true and so important.
In our effort to be fair to everyone, we are being unfair to all—shaming people for their excellence and success…turning a blind eye to limited efforts because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And in the end, it is putting us on a path toward extreme mediocrity rather than the drive for success that has been the hallmark of the American Dream.
Inspired by that sad thought, I wanted to share a blog I wrote several years ago about the growing trend to embarrass people for their success rather than applauding it…
Twenty years ago, when our daughters were three years old and six months old, my husband and I decided to buy a new sailboat, one that was larger than the one that we owned and one that would be more comfortable for traveling with our family. Frankly, the concept of buying any boat, let alone one of that size and quality, was utterly foreign to my value system.
I was raised in a working-class family, and we spent time and money on practical things, not on luxuries or hobbies like sailing. In contrast, my husband’s family valued the outdoors and family travel adventures. Since he had moved from his Colorado mountains to metropolitan New York, it was important to me to see that his need to “see the horizon” was fulfilled. A boat was not a luxury to him…it was part of a life connected with nature.
But still…there was this idea of a potential gross display of money with the purchase of this boat.
I had a long talk about it with a friend of mine who knew us both well and had come from a similar background to me. His view…
“You have worked hard and saved hard. There is no reason to be ashamed of your success. A sailboat is a wonderful opportunity for family connection and teaching lessons about nature, self-reliance, exploration and more. If you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labor, then why work so hard? And it’s not like you’re buying a mega-yacht with crew and gold-gilded fixtures.”
Why do I bring this up now? Because there is a lot of chatter in the media that demonizes people who are economically successful and that seems to run counter to the very principles upon which our country was founded—the importance of individual efforts…a puritan work ethic…competitive spirit. These principles have helped the US to become more successful both economically and socially than many other countries around the globe, and they allow us to use our economic successes to be generous in helping those who are less fortunate than we are.
Related to this, I had an interesting conversation with my daughter this weekend about the guilt she feels for her own successes and her “fear” of spending money on anything that is beyond the base necessities. She is not especially stylish or indulgent to begin with—but she was feeling bad about buying a high-quality face cream for her sensitive skin. What a tragic shame that a young person just starting her career couldn’t just experience the pride that comes with success and enjoy the fruits of her labor while also saving for the future. Yes, you want to enjoy your work, but you also work hard in order to enjoy your efforts. Where did her guilt come from? College professors…social media…mass media…you name it. The messaging is loud and pervasive.
America has always been the land of opportunity…the place where people come who are adventurous and independent enough to risk everything in order to build a better life. In some ways, the settlers were the original entrepreneurs. That spirit has paid out as evidenced by America’s global leadership, so it is ironic that so many people challenge our core principles, and, dare I say, are ashamed of them?
We are becoming a nation of epitomized mediocrity as we push everyone to the feel-good middle. Participation awards instead of winners and losers…no-child-left-behind education programming that reduces resources for gifted programs…even individuals being accepted to sports teams when they don’t have the skills as we witnessed with Hanover Park High School in New Jersey, where an unqualified student was placed on the squad after her parents complained.
Protecting every child from the opportunity to process rejection not only impedes his/her emotional development—it steals the pride and joy that comes with success.
All this effort to ensure that no one ever feels bad is, frankly, making a whole lot of people feel really bad. We are teaching our children to be embarrassed rather than proud when they get great grades or are chosen for awards. The cheerleaders in Hanover Park clearly got the message that all of their hard work to train in their sport and develop their skills was not necessary when all you had to say to be included was, “I feel left out.”
America has always prided itself on innovation, and with that generally comes economic success. But who is going to innovate if the reward is being demonized for your achievements? If we discourage the drive for success, what does our future look like? Articles are written about our poor STEM scores in schools and how we are losing the battle in certain technical industries. Of course, we are…we are discouraging individuals from excelling.
In my conversation with my daughter, I encouraged her to let go of the guilt foisted upon her. We also, however, talked about the responsibility that comes with success. When you have the good fortune of a strong education, a good job and the skills to excel in both, then there is a responsibility to use those resources to give back to the community…to help others on their paths…and to leave the world in a better place after you are gone.
In the five years since this blog was written, the shame poured on those who strive, work hard and think independently has only gotten worse. Many bemoan the mental and emotional health crisis facing our young people—they blame COVID and social media. But I wonder how much of it is rooted in the endless guilt and shame laden on children who just want to learn and grow and satisfy their curiosity but instead are being drowned in messages of guilt and victimization. Of course they can’t be happy and motivated when they are told to question their own beliefs and motivations…or when they are trained to be victims, constantly blaming “them” for their lack of success.
If we want winners, we need to applaud winning and create pathways that encourage people who want to succeed. We can’t demonize those who enjoy the fruits of their hard work…and we certainly can’t make people wrong for the natural gifts with which they’ve been blessed, since everyone has their own unique natural gifts, each of which should be encouraged to blossom.
As for that sailboat…we bought it and enjoyed it for many years. The family memories were magical. The challenges overcome and lessons learned along the way provided richness to the experiences and skill sets that our girls continue to apply in their lives. We worked hard to afford that boat, and made sacrifices in other places so that we could buy it. And yes, we are proud that we could.