How do you measure your success?
Pounds, seconds, body fat percentages, before-and-after photos, calories, food swaps and weight lifted are all examples of measures we use to estimate how well we have done, or decide whether we have achieved our goals.
If you are prepared to accept occasional fluctuations due to factors outside of your control, quantifiable measures such as these are very useful in recording progress over time, and they provide authentic proof that what you are doing is effective. I record all of my training times and the weights that I lift, a) because the simple act of recording what I have done is satisfying, and b) I can compare the numbers of this year to last year, and take pride in how I’ve progressed.
HOWEVER… these are just performance measures. They are measures of the results of your behaviour, and that’s it. They may represent a hell of a lot to you – some of them certainly do to me. But what isn’t always represented in numbers is the obstacles you cleared and the extent of the endeavours you have made along the way. And it is these aspects that often make your achievements even more powerful than you think they are.
A piece of my journey…
When I first started running on the treadmill at age 14, all I could do was jog slowly for 9 minutes tops. I slowly worked at it and eventually got to the point where I could run for 30 minutes at 10kph, within about 18 months. Now, 9 years later, I can run at over 17kph for the same amount of time.
When I went to my local athletics club for the first time at age 17, I couldn’t sprint 400m in anything quicker than 78 seconds. But now I can run 78-second laps consecutively, several times over comfortably.
You could look at this 2 ways – you could say “that’s a big improvement”, or you could say “it took you 9 years to do that?!”
If I were to look at the numbers alone, I may be inclined to lean towards the second one. But going with the second one would mean ignoring ALL of the endeavours and obstacles I have faced in the process.
I didn’t start training seriously until I was 20, mainly because I struggled big-time with motivation. When I very first started running, it was purely for weight loss reasons. My motive was highly extrinsic, fuelled by negative self-perceptions. I was not interested in improving my fitness, enjoying the feeling of movement or getting better at something. As a result, I didn’t enjoy running in the slightest. It was just a chore, and a pretty uncomfortable one at that.
It took me a while to fully realise the other benefits that running has to offer. But nevertheless, as people inspired me along the way and I grew to enjoy the process of improving, my focus shifted towards chasing personal growth, maximising my own fitness and challenging myself.
Alongside these mental changes, I experienced a lot of injuries and times of stress, both of which tend to cause training to grind to a halt. Life happens, and sometimes it gets in the way!
So to me, the numbers that I have right now – the amounts by which I have improved – mean a lot more than meets the eye. I have achieved a lot more personally than they would suggest. The processes I had to go through to evolve from the state I started in – with zero drive or motivation – to someone who trains every day are great successs in themselves.
So why am I telling you this?
I wanted to discuss the ways in which we are successful that extend beyond quantifiable measures such as weight and times. I think of these as personal endeavours – challenges that you overcome that can’t be measured in quite the same way.
The reason I have come to view these as so important is that I have noticed, in myself and many others, the tendency to overemphasise the numbers and how they compare to everyone else’s. I hear many runners talking their performances down because they didn’t come in the top 10 of a race. I am guilty of this. People compare themselves to personalities on social media, and subsequently become dissatisfied with themselves because they haven’t lifted as much, got as much muscle definition or achieved that “perfect” diet. Also guilty.
But there is no level playing field – everyone’s journey, experiences, strengths and weaknesses are unique.
[If you really want to get into the details, genetics significantly influence the shape of our muscles and skeletons, our propensity to gain and lose weight, our ability to sprint, our biomechanics and our rate of training adaptation, to name a few things. So comparing your physical progress to someone else’s is analagous to comparing a giraffe to a dog, or something random and arbitrary like that.]
Basically many of us allow others’ achievements to overshadow our own, which is wrong, because we are all different. To dismiss your own successes because someone else’s seem greater is to dismiss all of the effort you have put in and the obstacles you have surpassed. You wouldn’t trivialise the achievements of elite marathon runners because they haven’t run as fast a marathon as Paula Radcliffe, the fastest female marathon runner of all time. That way, everybody should feel bad about their own successes, because there’s always someone “better”!!
By all means, use people you admire as motivation and inspiration – let them be proof of what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. But don’t trivialise your own successes – your own efforts, changes and progress – in the face of someone else’s.
I say that as if it’s easy – it isn’t. You often can’t completely eradicate social comparison, as it is a natural human process. Some people also thrive off of it. However, what you CAN do is recognise what you have done that may not be measured by numbers…..
Add different kinds of measures to your repertoire
In my training diary, at the end of the week, I write down the amount of small victories that I have experienced. These small victories are things like getting myself out for a run when I really can’t be bothered, pushing through a hard track session when I really want to drop out, planning my weights sessions properly so they get done, and taking a constructive view of a bad race instead of a negative one.
But these are just the things that I personally often struggle with. Small victories may take the shape of managing to swap a food that you crave badly for a healthier one, doing something that you have previously been too scared to do, getting in the car and driving to the gym despite feeling tired, getting your meals planned for the week or managing to cram in a short run around the school run and cooking dinner. A small victory is anything that you have managed when the circumstances aren’t exactly ideal.
To conclude: think about how you have challenged yourself and how you have persevered in ways that you wouldn’t have done before.
Be proud of your small successes and personal endeavours. Even if you aren’t hitting the quantifiable mile markers you have set yet, be patient with yourself. If you keep putting in the effort and counting your small victories, things will come about.