It might have happened to you: you achieved something so great in your life or career that nothing you’ll ever do will ever match it for sheer accomplishment or awe. Now what? I haven’t had anything that impressive happen to me yet–more on that later–but I’ve had moments that made me appreciate that I’d reached an important moment in my development. Today I’d just like to talk about burnout.
What’s Next After Winning?
What inspired this post was an interview with Canadian ice skater Tessa Virtue, who with her partner Scott Moir became one of the greatest medal winners in the history of Olympic figure skating. The interview, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, included this poignant exchange between the interviewer and Virtue:
Sports psychologists call it the “Olympic comedown”—that moment after the competition ends and an athlete realizes the one thing that defined their day-to-day-life no longer does. During one interview, we started half-seriously drafting Virtue’s obituary, knowing that, at just shy of thirty, she has almost certainly already lived its first line. “Whatever I take on next, I’m never going to be the best in the world,” she says. “How will I get that rush when it’s not the Olympic Games?”
The Olympics are a world of sport unto themselves. Becoming a medal winner is up there with becoming an astronaut in its rarity and necessary dedication. Yet people do it. Others achieve great things artistically, mathematically, musically, professionally, or financially. And even those of us who don’t become medical-doctor-Navy-SEAL-astronauts or professional-cheerleader-lawyer-doctor-fitness-competitor-business-owners have our own personal goals to pursue in our lives. And one day, after days, weeks, months, or (more likely) years of struggle, that hard-won goal can be achieved.
You did it! Take a bow! Revel in your well-earned pride in a job well done. In fact, you should take a break (a day, anyway). But then what? Are you done? Is that the peak experience in your life and everything else is going to be anticlimactic? You might not have “Olympic comedown,” but you might be asking yourself after you achieve your great feat, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?”
When I got the M.A., I felt that was just the jumping-off point for where I really wanted to go. Then I got my first real engineering job. That was great, but it wasn’t the end of the journey, either. I wanted a job in the space business. I got that job three years after the second degree. Not going to lie: I was practically levitating with the joy of that first NASA job. But again, the acquiring of the job was just the start: a means to something else. After NASA, there was the “Chief of Communications” job at a small aerospace business doing cool things…again, getting the offer was a very cool thing, but from there I had more learning and doing to do. I’ve since been a space reporter and now a freelance technical writer for the “New Space” community. Where will I go next? I have no idea, but the process of doing the work opens up more opportunities, and that’s the point.
I suppose if this meditation on achievement has any point, it’s this: you should set your goals as broadly as possible, or as stepping stones to a broader goal. You want a path that leads to newer, bigger, better, and different challenges, so that you’re not consumed by a singular event and then let down after you’ve achieved it. You can accept the congratulations for a specific achievement made or a job well done. However, more importantly, you can look forward to the doors that accomplishing that task opens for you next. There is always another hill to climb, whether it’s personal or professional. I wish Ms. Virtue much success in the future, and I suspect she’ll find that next hill.
Meanwhile, I will end with a video of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir performing the routine (what an inadequate word–there’s nothing “routine” about it!) that won them their Olympic Gold in South Korea. It’s a testament to hard work and to a spirit that seeks always-greater challenges.