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The Pursuit of Happiness. Or Greatness?

I recently watched 'Tiger'. It's the documentary on Tiger Woods--or more specifically his emotional education from the time he was a baby. Brilliantly done featuring interviews with friends, his former caddie--those who had an intimate vantage point in seeing a young boy absorb all that he saw around him, in seeing a young boy being taught by his father to block out distractions and emotions.


Through the documentary, we witness a young man obsess over a sport because it would be the only thing he felt he could perfect and control. Through my tv screen I could feel the weight on this young boy's shoulders, the heavy responsibility of "transcending" golf and changing it from being an elitist, exclusionary sport to one that embraced everyone. And in order for him to do that, he had to be the best. At least that's what his father and mother had always taught him.


Tiger wasn't allowed to think about anything else, not fun, not friendships, not anything that wasn't related to golf. I could see the sadness in his eyes and how they would light up whenever he was just being a regular teenager--far away from the intensity of his home life. It made me think about my own child and the question that I raised to my husband was, what's more important for our son to be--happy or great? And is it possible to be both?


I have always been fascinated by athletes and their discipline, their desire to keep working on their game, their constant strive for perfection, their obsession with being better than others and even themselves. It's a powerful analogy for life--to show up, to work hard, to accept losing as part of the journey to winning. Perhaps that's why I love watching sports documentaries that explore the human side of something that often sees its participants as machines.


There is the school of thought adopted by athletes and other extraordinary individuals in every other profession that in order to excel, to be the best, one has to have a singular focus--a one track mind if you will. Every other thought, desire, need has to come after the goal which is perfection. In The Making of An Expert, the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson (who wrote the book Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things and from who Malcolm Gladwell misinterpreted the 10,000 hours rule in which he assumed Ericsson stated it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a task) said,"The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise..." He goes on to argue, when it comes to kids, it isn't the hours but "deliberate practice". As written in Quartz Ericsson clarifies, "What parents should glean from the science of expertise is not the effect of logging thousands of hours, but how to get kids to embrace the importance and challenge of effective practice." But what he doesn't talk about is their own growth and path to contentment.


'The Danish Way' of parenting promotes the idea of helping children develop their physical, social, and cognitive skills in a more wholesome and natural way. Author Iben Sendahl says giving children more freedom to play, to explore, to try new things helps to develop a more authentic and honest sense of self--away from the noise, away from influence, and away from other people's (as in parents') perceptions of who they need to be. She calls it their "inner compass" saying, "Play gives the growing child the cognitive ability to solve problems, the emotional ability to withstand hardship, the social ability to help others, and the physical ability to carry it all through." She goes on to add with play and trust to try to take on tasks, children develop a sense of achievement on their own saying, "With a heavy bag of successes to draw from, it is easier to build self-esteem. When challenged by life, the child is confident he/she has a chance of overcoming difficulty simply by being who they are. Play helps develop a sense of self that shapes the foundation for whole and happy children." And she's not wrong. Denmark is often cited as among the happiest and healthiest places in the world to live. It's definitely a very different way of being for kids than Asian countries where memorisation and intense focus on the best grades are the norm.


But do happy kids grow up to be great? Do they grow up to make a difference? Do they grow up to change the world for the better? Would we have the kind of kids who will go on to break records and barriers? I guess it depends on how we define great and success today and in the future. I would argue that happiness, contentment, and a strong sense of self don't eliminate ambition. In fact, I would argue that they bring into clearer focus one's own purpose and desire to live life that will be aligned with that. If that is a love of a sport, an instrument, a discipline, a profession, then the dedication will come from that whole sense of oneself and purpose. A purpose that is linked with bringing something to the wider wellbeing of society--whether it is through showing us what is possible or what is beautiful or a combination of the two.


The Tiger documentary, while indeed an example from one end of the ambition spectrum, shows us the price one pays for a life that ignores the fundamentals of human existence--which is a freedom to develop, grow, and discover who we are and then to understand that we are part of a wider human experience. Having a singular focus that comes from a projected desire to achieve without a strong and healthy emotional foundation leaves us vulnerable to life's inevitabilities. Imagine a house built on concrete (assuming that that, not insulation, not steel beams or structural walls or solid materials), is only what is needed to be strong and withstand storms. The house would crumble.


That is what happened with Tiger Woods. He crumbled. We see that. We see that when he was sitting in a jail cell after having been arrested for a DUI after his life was already shattered in various pieces. We see the path that led him there--the look in his eyes when being interviewed about his game after his successes---the force of control he had over himself to just focus on the game, to just focus on projecting this image of a person who had a singular goal ("myopic android" is how the Telegraph once described him), the pressure of never being able to be himself, of not even knowing who that person really was. That focus led him to greatness as defined by the standards of a world obsessed with winning. But that focus also ignored the cracks in his emotional foundation. A foundation built on only being the best on the golf course, not the best version of himself in life.


Tiger Woods is talented, immensely talented, and watching him play is like watching an artist work his magic with masterful strokes. So is Roger Federer. Similar analogy only this time for tennis. But there is an openness with Federer. I've seen it. When I interviewed him many years ago, I saw a man who was so very comfortable in his own skin, not guarded, no PR perfect answers to questions. Just a man who was proud of his work, his family, and the path that led him to being the greatest tennis player in history. And he looked happy. So what is the difference between the two? A seemingly strong emotional foundation, one where Federer was allowed to develop as a child, act out even on the court as he learned to manage his feelings about his game and how dedicated he wanted to be. In an interview his mother Lynette said, "We are a close family, but Roger took the decision at a very early age that he wanted to play tennis away from home. We never forced him to do anything, we let him develop on his own. He made a lot of important decisions himself when he was younger and that was key to his success because he had to learn how to do things for himself." She would go on to add, "I know that that it wasn't always fun and games for Roger (at the Swiss national tennis centre), and that many days he wasn't that happy. But those struggles were good for him. Overcoming those ups and downs was a challenge for him, and it helped him to develop as a person." The drive came from him not his parents.


The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has talked about how parents need to keep harnessing our children's curiosity. He, like Sendahl, are huge proponents of the power of play and happiness that comes from it saying even letting a child jump in a puddle of muddy water expands their understanding of not only science but also themselves. By not allowing the child to jump in the puddles we're extinguishing their natural desire to learn, to be curious, to find who they are and who they could be. I would argue Tiger Woods' parents didn't let him jump in any puddles (his mother famously said she never took Tiger to parks opting for the golf course instead), they didn't allow him to be distracted by fun, they only wanted him to be great, at golf, to "transcend the sport" as his father once described his ambition for his son. It became a mission not a purpose. Did he break barriers? Yes. Did he transcend the sport? Yes. Did he lose himself on the way? Yes. Did the ends justify the means? I don't think so. Would he have still been great at golf if he was allowed to explore it for himself? Maybe. Those who pay attention to the sport notice a different man today, one "who sees the bigger picture." It makes me wonder what will he be teaching his kids about happiness and greatness knowing what he knows now?


Do I want my child to be happy? Without a doubt yes. Do I want him to be great? What I want for him is to find his purpose. And if greatness is how his life and work end up defining him to be, then of course I would be proud, but not at any cost. What would I choose? His happiness. Always. It would be easy to assume that all parents would want that for their children. But unfortunately, it's not. Many place achievement, social standing, earning potential, awards, and reputation as barometers of success. It always comes at a cost. My belief is my job as a parent is help my child develop a strong emotional foundation, to expose him to different things and see to what or where his interests gravitate. Then he/we can decide how much time and effort he wants to devote to it, always knowing and keeping himself and what he values at the heart of everything he does.


As for Woods, growth continues. And that's all we can ask of anyone. To continue to learn. For his part, when it comes to the pursuit of greatness, he does so with perspective and now purpose saying, "I'm not done yet." Hopefully it is with a heart full of happiness too.


Monita xo