Winning Genes and Global Memes
Maybe you can’t pull off the gravity defying, high-flying tricks of newly crowned Olympic Gold medallist Max Parrot. Maybe you can’t push and steer a 300-plus pound sled down a track of ice at the blistering pace of American Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t win.
Yes, maybe it’s not an Olympic gold medal, but the fact still remains: you are built to win.
The reality is every single one of us is built to win. Literally. Winning is deeply entrenched into the DNA of everyone on this planet, or we wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Travel back 2 billion years to a time when simple cells navigated the globe in harsh environments. Cells that mobilized to find food as a source of energy or shelter as a source of protection had much greater odds of survival. They were the winners. Those winning cells, through the slow and steady steps of evolution, have gotten us to where we are today.
Cells that adapted to form stackable membranes, which became eyes, were the winners. Organs that acutely released massive amounts of glucocorticoids to well-musculatured limbs to avoid lethal predators won. That athlete that places almost every aspect of their existence on the back burner in order to stand atop the podium is the champion. The ultimate winner.
But winning sometimes comes at a cost.
Our environment has always and will always be a potential threat.
The atmosphere of early Earth lacked oxygen, so unless you were some form of bacteria that didn’t need oxygen, you lost. A gazelle who has a pack of lions move in as next-door neighbors often loses. The athlete that has justifiably focused every aspect of their existence towards the goal of winning can often find difficulty winning in other aspects of life.
Some people may think,
“That can’t be true. They’ve got to be on top of the world. Look at their social media; they have adoring fans, endorsement deals, etc.”
And they’re right, but it’s easy to miss what goes on behind the crafted narratives of social media.
A few years back, I was working with an Olympic wrestler that struggled with substance use after his career. He had no such issues while competing. Training was his addiction, and competition was his obsession. He was idolized by people in the sport and respected by those outside of sport.
But at some point, the competition ends and there was no more preparation for what came next. He obviously knew that one day he’d retire, but he mastered the art of pushing that thought to the most distant recesses of his mind.
Why? Because avoiding that thought was how he won; it was how he survived.
His absent father struggled with substance use and his mother with depression. She worked numerous odd jobs to provide a roof over their heads. They transitioned in and out of apartments and were often split up to live among friends or relatives for months on end. Wrestling at the local community center started as nothing more than a babysitting service.
By the time he was a preteen, his dreams were to one day own a waterbed and a red car. Wrestling was a means of survival; an activity where he could pour his endless energy into as well as his frustration. He learned to control his opponents with takedowns and arm drags but never learned to control his emotions.
He was overly aggressive which was great for the sport. This behavior was justifiably reinforced at every opportunity.
This taught him to focus on his physical development and little else. Becoming an Olympic wrestler pushes the boundaries of physicality while driving the reality of chronic injury and pain far outside the human mind. He mastered these abilities on all levels.
A Changing Narrative
In short succession, tennis star Naomi Osaka and decorated gymnast Simone Biles held what could be the two most important press conferences in the history of sport. They did something that top athletes rarely ever do: they showed a level of vulnerability and just how incongruent professional success and personal well-being can be.
They have done what no number of psychologists, doctors, or glorified life coaches could ever do. They let the public see through the veneer of highly crafted personas into the true inner workings of the idolized human mind.
They’re not robots designed solely for the purpose of our enjoyment and adoration. They are people trying to navigate through the chaos, just like the rest of us. Sure, they may do it with an abundance of cash and notoriety, but that can’t override 700+ million years of evolution that undoubtedly shapes behavior.
Cooperation Over Competition
Most of us here in North America have taken Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest too far. We think that life boils down to binary wins and loses in a dog-eat-dog world, but this isn’t the case.
In fact, Darwin himself later realized how important cooperation was for our survival,
“Taking care of one another and looking out for one another has been an evolutionary prerequisite. It is why we have survived.”
For example, you can take the biggest, strongest, most physically productive early human in a band of hunters and gathers, but if he didn’t develop a highly advanced socially cooperative skillset, he would have been stabbed to death in his sleep.
We cannot separate our biological from our sociological development. They walk hand in hand throughout human evolution.
Winning Beyond Sport
We often play this little game in clinic to show folks how collective “winning” truly is. It demonstrates how vital seemingly unrelated factors can be in achieving success.
We remove them one by one and ask the following question,
“How do you think this would affect your chances of success?”
It starts fairly obviously,
“What if we were to remove your teammates? Or your coaches if it’s an individual sport?”
The response is usually along the lines of,
“Yeah they’re important no doubt, but you can get other teammates or hire other coaches.”
We then go a little deeper,
“What if we took away your ability to travel from 12–18 years old? You have no parents, siblings, family, or friends to rely on to get you back and forth from training, competitions, etc.”
Then the realization starts hit,
“Well, yeah that would no doubt suck and I guess I’d have to find a bus or other form of transportation.”
“Now what if your parents were struggling to make ends meet and sport was an afterthought.”
When shifting someone’s perspective from a soloist to a more collective one, something interesting happens.
They begin to realize just how important other variables and people are in achieving success. But to be honest, this is relatively easy unless someone is totally narcissistic. What’s harder, and undeniably more important, is a collective mindset in regard to failure.
It’s easy to bare burdens alone and to internalize misfortunes through a psyche of self flagellation; human nature has built us this way and we must accept that. In clinic, we provide tools first, acknowledge, and then move beyond this self-defeating prophecy.
Our go-to way of achieving this dates back to the 3rd century, B.C.E.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that hails from ancient Greece and Rome.
The basic tenet was built on a foundation of helping people live their best life. Marcus Aurelius, one of the most influential human beings in history and head of the Roman Empire, practiced and lived the Stoic philosophy.
A philosophy centered around the premise of focusing your mind on the process, not the outcome. The “process” is something that can be trained and controlled in a way that could lead to a better, more fulfilling life.
“In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her verdict upon me.” – Seneca
The early Greeks and Romans lived in a world much different than today.
Yes, you could have been dragged through the town square naked for sleeping with a neighbor’s wife, but today you can instantly become the subject of a global meme.
Which is worse? I’m not sure.
Regardless, the essence of Stoicism hasn’t changed at all: We focus our control on the way we do things, but the results never lie in our control.
You’ve trained the majority of your life to compete at the Olympic Games, and now a positive COVID test forces you out of the competition. It’s a terrible scenario regardless of how you frame it in your mind.
But frame it you must.
And after a well-deserved period of anger and self-loathing, your focus must shift. You’ve put in the work and will continue to put in the work. You will take responsibility for controlling your process, not the outcome. The goalposts may have shifted, but the goal is still there if you want it.
Wrestling With Life
My patient became my friend.
He continues to battle substance issues and I attempt to help when and where I can. Luckily for him, he now has a wide support system that puts his Olympic teammates to shame. People from all walks of life that help not only him, but each other. I know this because he wrangled some of these people, maybe even headlocked a few, to help me when my own life was in limbo.
We are both still here rippin’ as best we can through each and every day.
Focus and control the process, not the outcome. The process always involves others and is never a solo pursuit.
That is winning.