I'm comparing myself to the other rock climbers

Should I be pushing myself harder?

Published February 28, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 41-year-old self-employed creative. I consider myself moderately successful -- I'm competent and respected in my field, earn just enough money to live comfortably and make my way in the world. My 20s and 30s were rough -- I was miserably married for 10 years, worked unhappily (albeit quite successfully) in the corporate world for 15, and leaving each of those institutions made me free to pursue my passions -- music, running, outdoor sports.

I'm generally happy with my life and feel fulfilled and fortunate to be in this situation; my health is good, I travel frequently, I'm surrounded by family and good friends and a kind, devoted lover, and my freedom has allowed me to mostly eliminate negative and toxic people -- be it clients, lovers, friends -- from my life. I don't earn a ton of money or live extravagantly, but I'm able to cook healthy food, and I'm saving for retirement and putting away a decent amount in the bank each year, and have no debts. So far so good!

The trouble starts when I begin to think too much, and wonder whether I'm on the right track. I find it necessary to guard against becoming complacent with my life situation, lest I fall into one of the traps that might have led to my previous dead ends. I try not to be too hard on myself, but at the same time, I don't want to allow myself to become cluelessly incompetent at what I do.

A lot of this comes from looking around at what my peers are doing. My business peers (both employed and self-employed) tend to work longer and harder hours than me. They're constantly gunning for new business, writing proposals, trying to undertake more projects; some of them are commanding stunningly high fees for their work and doing more high-profile work. And good for them! But some of them seem constantly stressed and overworked, even though they're earning substantially more money than I am.

This makes me wonder whether I'm missing a huge gaping hole in my financial and life plans. I'm frugally comfortable now and I'm saving for retirement. But a little voice in my head asks, "Shouldn't you be hustling more? You're too comfortable!" (For the record, I'm dating a woman in her 40s; we have no children and no plans to start a family, though if a child came along, I'd welcome it.)

Something else I noticed from my experience in sports is that I seem to lack the competitiveness that a lot of my peers have. I'm in reasonable shape, but haven't been able to run a marathon fast enough to qualify to run the Boston Marathon (though I've come heartbreakingly close). In races, I tend to come in the front part of the middle of the pack -- a little above average, but nowhere near being able to win my age group. It used to bother me, but now I've come to accept my place in the middle of the pack, and I'm just glad to be healthy and able to run.

At the rock climbing gym, I find myself reverting to the easy routes when my arm muscles start failing and I find I can't complete the harder routes; it's enough of an achievement for me to be high up on a wall doing something that terrifies me, and for a little bit I'm satisfied. But then I look around, and see guys and girls whom I consider my peers sweating and struggling and giving their all on the harder climbing routes. And then I get self-conscious and start wondering whether this is all a metaphor for my life.

By opting out of the rat race mentality, have I engineered my life to make it too easy to navigate? Have I set goals that are too low so that I can easily achieve them? Have I lowered my expectations? Is it unhealthy that I've eliminated most conflict and contentious individuals from my life? Have I settled? Am I copping out?

Or is it possible that I'm on the right track, have worked toward the Buddhist ideal of reducing suffering by setting realistic, sustainable expectations for my life? I am always aware that I'm quite fortunate right now, and that this equilibrium might not last ... something may come along and disrupt my life, change it for the better or for the worse, provide a new challenge. "This, too, shall pass ..."

So I guess ultimately I'm wondering: Is my lack of competitiveness a character flaw that will trip me up in ways I can't comprehend? If not, why does it bother me so much at times?

Concerned That There's Something I'm Not Seeing

Dear Concerned,

When we're comparing ourselves to others we're already losing. We're losing whether we come out superior to them or inferior to them. We're losing because we're losing reverence for our particular qualities and needs that will guide us toward happiness. We're losing because we're denying others their individuality as much as we're denying ourselves.

You have certain unique needs and it's your calling in life to respect those needs and meet them.

So maybe you have a need to conquer. Maybe that's what this is. You have a need to win. So how can you meet that need to win? Maybe rock climbing is not the best way to satisfy your need to feel on top of the world. Maybe competitive running is not the way. It may be that you need to be in a one-to-one relationship with the world.

Let's think about this need to conquer. What is it, really? Remember that scene in "Titanic" where Leonardo DiCaprio is on the prow of the ship and he's elated? He's shouting "I'm king of the world!"

He didn't win any competition. He just went to the prow of the ship because it was a place where he could feel elation and dominance, where he could feel the power of the tremendous and beautiful ship under him and behind him propelling him through the water, and he could look out at the great Atlantic expanse and see no one in his way, and he could be in that instant the godlike ruler of the seas.

He didn't have to beat out any rock climbers to get there. He was just seizing a moment, a dramatic moment, to fulfill something in himself. And maybe, looking at it again, as I just did, it strikes us as a bit corny. But I remember seeing it in the theater and feeling his elation. And I've been on top of a big ship all alone going under the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night and there's something about seeing the immensity of the sea pass by that touches something primal in you. You feel like a conqueror.

You can meet your inner need to be a conqueror without having competitive conquerors to your right and left. Solitary sports provide this rush. In surfing it's you and the wave. Even if there are 12 surfers to the right and left of you, once you're on the wave, it's you and the wave. It's a sport of beauty; it's not a timed event; it's expressive. You can feel that you have conquered the wave no matter how much "better" some other surfer may perform. It's you and the wave.

Maybe the wave crushes you. That's between you and the wave. The wave doesn't have any opinions about you. It'll crush anybody. It's just a wave.

You talk about your lack of competitiveness? I wouldn't say you lack competitiveness. I might say that you are not Michael Jordan.

Can you handle not being Michael Jordan? Can you handle not even being what we'd call an elite athlete? Can you handle being who you are with the gifts you've been given? Must you suffer? This suffering you bring on yourself.

If you suffer because you were not born a gifted athlete, does that mean that all others who were not born gifted athletes must also suffer? Why should they suffer? If you do not believe that they should suffer, then why do you reserve the right to suffer yourself? Are you not an example to others? Do you not seek to live as you think others should live? So, if not for yourself, then as an example to others: Be at peace with the body you were born with. Be at peace with your own nature. Find your own way, let it make you happy, and in finding your own way inspire others.

Lead by being who you are.

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By Cary Tennis

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