How do you measure success?
I’m a 9-year veteran professional soccer player. I’m an entrepreneur. I’ve been voted Goalkeeper of the Year in my league. I’ve received a Top 30 under 30 award in my hometown. All of that should be enough to classify myself as a success, right? I’ve built a growing business. I own my own home. I’ve been able to do what I love my entire career. But would I consider myself successful? It depends on how you want to define success.
Take a second (or 60, I don’t mean to rush you). Think about how you would describe success to a random stranger. What does it look like? How does it feel? I think about these questions a lot. Probably because I get asked some iteration of them regularly when doing interviews and podcasts. I’ve been asked enough times and given enough bland, cliché answers that I’ve finally started to reflect on what success really looks like and how I define it for myself. First let’s talk about how to measure success.
Individually. That’s the simple answer for me. And I don’t mean simply by each individual person. It has to be measured, analyzed, celebrated by each individual success. What do I mean? At the end of the 2020 USL Championship season, I finished with the most saves in the league, a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year, and was voted to the All-League Second Team. From the outside looking in, most people would say that is a successful year. But compare it to 2015. A year in which I won a variety of awards (Goalkeeper of the Year, First Team All-League, League Champion). Then some of the shine seems to fade away. So why compare? Because that’s how we, as humans, seem to be wired. We constantly compare ourselves to our past successes or the achievements of others.
I have to look back on both seasons, individually. I can measure the amount of growth I had as a goalkeeper. After doing that, I would absolutely define both as successes but for very different reasons. My fourth professional season in 2015 was somewhat of a storybook season given how it started and how it finished. I started that season fighting for a role as a backup on a team that wasn’t projected to go very far. Fast forward seven months and I was waking up hung over with a champions medal around my neck after playing 25 games and leading the league in a number of statistical categories. I was able to improve from a relative unknown to a league champion and that is something I can always be proud of.
Fast forward to 2020, a year of tremendous growth but full of hurdles and mishaps. Covid-19 had a massive effect on how our season played out and the palpable growing civil unrest around the country weighed heavily. Despite everything happening off the field, there were still goals to be achieved on it. I was able to help guide my team back to the postseason for the first time in two years. I was voted to the All-League team, and no matter what anyone has to say about second team, it’s not an easy feat. Finally, being nominated for the highest award at my position for a second time in my 9-year career is a recognition to be proud of. It wasn’t the heights that I reached in 2015, but shooting for the stars and landing in the clouds is not something I will ever be ashamed of.
So what does success feel like for you? How do you enjoy it when you’re constantly striving for more? It’s a never-ending struggle, especially for athletes. I’ll never forget the feeling of the final whistle blowing in the championship game in 2015. It was instant elation for my teammates. For me, it was a massive sigh of relief. It was over. I didn’t have to perform anymore. I was obviously happy to have won the game and become a champion. But the overwhelming feeling was relief that the pressure was off…for now. With success comes expectations. Expectations from yourself and expectations from others. Sometimes I feel like I never really got to enjoy the success of winning a championship because my initial thoughts, after the champagne showers, were: what’s next?
It was an amazing year but there was always a feeling in the back of my mind that I wasn’t worthy of the accolades I was receiving. I wasn’t making as many saves as everyone else around the league. I felt like I wasn’t contributing to the team as much as every other goalkeeper in the league. I was constantly comparing myself to others instead of being proud of what I was achieving. After the championship game, the inevitable texts and phone calls came asking when I was going to MLS or what my next move was going to be. The pressure to achieve more outweighed the feelings of accomplishment I should have been enjoying. As athletes, we are taught to have a short-term memory. Never celebrate too long and never focus on failure too much. Sometimes, this can have an unintended negative affect. While constantly moving on to the next goal, we forget to celebrate our success of achieving the last goal.
Shifting the conversation a bit, here is a question for you to ponder: If your goal is to win an Olympic gold medal and you finish with a silver, have you failed?
It all depends on the lens through which you define your achievements. In the 2016 Summer Olympics there were 11,384 athletes competing in 306 events. Winning a bronze medal in one of those events meant you did better than more than 90% of the world’s top athletes competing at the Olympic Games. Take a second and let that sink in. More than 11,000 of the BEST ATHLETES IN THE WORLD are competing and less than 10% of those athletes receive a medal. You’re not just elite; you’re the upper echelon of the elite athletes around the world.
But your goal was a gold medal. You didn’t put in all of those hours of training for a silver or bronze medal. You pushed yourself to the limits for a gold. Is that success or is that failure? This may be an extreme example given the extremely high level at which these athletes compete but the thought process and struggle can be applied to many athletes at the youth, collegiate, and professional level. Does being voted third-team all conference or being an award finalist but not winning the award constitute a successful season or one where you came up short?
What I’ve had to learn, specifically over the past 5 years, is that you have to celebrate your victories no matter how large or small. In 2015, I collected awards like candy. In 2016, I couldn’t find my way off the bench. In 2017, I was able to play 25 games and was voted player of the year for my team. I didn’t win any league awards. I didn’t lead the league in any statistical categories. What I did was bounce back from a really low point in my life and put together a solid season that gave me something to build on for the future. It’s a little victory but it was a victory, nonetheless. If I compared it to the other goalkeepers in the league that season then I would have fallen way short of my expectation of being the best in the league. You can’t discount your own growth because you didn’t achieve the same level of perceived success as others.
It’s a hard concept to grasp, especially as an athlete. We are bred to compete. Whether it is at practice, in the weight room, or on the field. We are constantly comparing ourselves to the next person in order to prove we are superior. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, but two stood out the most: Relentless by Tim Grover and Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson. Both books discuss the mindset of some of the most elite athletes of all-time, specifically Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Their will and drive to never lose, never be second, is what many athletes aspire to. But they also talk about competing with yourself more than you compete with others. This concept is what has really changed my mindset over the past few months and years.
I define my success. Not the media, not my friends, not any outside influence other than me. My focus can’t be on being a better goalkeeper than anyone else. I have to focus on being the best goalkeeper I can be and I trust that my top level is higher than my competition. If I’m focusing on what everyone else is doing then I’m not focusing on what I need to do in order to improve. Too often, guys step in a weight room and see their competition benching 225 so they feel inadequate at 165. You can strive to improve your bench but do so because it’s going to help you improve as an athlete, not because you want to out-bench a competitor. What’s the long term goal and how do you get there? If the long term goal is to have the heaviest bench on your team then obviously you have some work to do. But if your mission is to hold down a starting spot, you have to look beyond the short term focus of benching. Success needs to be what you define it as, not what society says you should be striving for.
Learn to focus on the positives and you’ll see a lot change in your life. I’ve sat in exit meetings with coaching staffs year after year explaining what went wrong throughout the season and how I plan to fix it in the offseason. It’s how I’m wired, I always want to improve. But I’ve had to force myself more recently to highlight the positives in order to truly show myself how I’ve been able to grow from year to year. It’s a small thing but it can have a massive impact on your life in all aspects. That’s what success is for me: growth. Continue to develop as a man, as an athlete, and as an entrepreneur. Pushing myself to be better in every aspect of my life because ultimately that’s what makes me happy. In the end, that’s what all of us want. To live a life that makes us happy. Define your own success, enjoy your own happiness.
I’ll leave you with this: What do we, as humans, learn more from; success or failure?