What’s so great about a first place medal? What’s it worth? What can you do with it? Fog it up with your breath and rub it with a handkerchief? It’s not all that useful; it’s perhaps not even as useful as being able to recite the first 9,000 digits of pi. It doesn’t do anything. What is it?
It’s a symbol. It only has the value we place on it and means what we decide it to mean. So let’s agree that it’s not a medal. It’s just a placeholder for a feeling. That feeling you get when you score that final goal in a soccer game, or you’re the last person standing in the spelling bee. Success, accomplishment, pride. That irreplaceable euphoric feeling superheated and forged into a little chunk of metal you can wear around your neck. It’s inspiration. It’s motivation. It says, “you are the best!”
But what about all those other times, the times when we don’t win? What about all those other people? If there’s a first place, there’s a second place. And usually a third place. And sometimes even a ninety-ninth place. If twenty thousand people run a marathon, somebody’s going to come in twenty-thousandth.
Is that failure? Is that something to be afraid of?
It’s a good feeling, the weight of that medal hanging around your neck. Being the best. But points scored? The time on the clock? The finish line? Those things represent measurements. What they don’t properly account for are the challenges and the feelings and experiences that come with it.
Winning compares you to other people. Challenge compares you to yourself; it tests your personal limits. When we challenge ourselves, or are faced with challenges we choose to grapple with rather than shy away from, we are taking a chance, questioning the boundaries that we once thought defined us, but learn don’t; it’s through challenge that we can even become entirely new people. Which is another way of saying, “we grow.” You can grow without ever winning, but you can never grow if you don’t challenge yourself.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to win. It gives you something to keep your eye on, something to work towards. I’m just saying we might want to reconsider the value we place on winning. Like that medal, it only means what we decide it means. But it shouldn’t define us, whether we get it or not. So let’s agree that being the best is fine – it’s just not as important as being the best we can be.
Because life isn’t a competition, it’s a challenge. Whenever you make the most of that challenge, you should feel success, accomplishment, pride. When our lives end, nobody is going to be handing out glistening gold medals. All you get is the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your all. So do that. Because it’s a good feeling, and it’s worth something far more than anyone can weigh, or count, or hold in the palm of their hand.