Last Saturday I won a 10K road race with 1,025 finishers by two minutes. That is a worthy accomplishment. Very few runners are fortunate enough to enjoy the experience of breaking the tape at a large running event so far ahead of the next athlete that a cool-down jog is well underway by the time that next athlete finishes. Yet I was overwhelmed with disappointment when I stopped the clock at the Super Run 10K in San Diego this past weekend, because my goal had been not to win but to break my 10K personal record, and I came up two seconds short of achieving the latter. I've never really cared much about where I place in events. I've always been a time geek. And so a race performance that observers might have assumed I was proud of left me feeling hollow.
When I tried to explain my disappointment to my wife later she very sensibly told me I was crazy. She said she believed I was possessed of a spirit of discontent. No matter what I do, I'm never satisfied. That charge is fair in one sense, but wrong in another. I derive great general satisfaction from being a runner, and from being a pretty good runner. For me there is satisfaction in the feeling of fitness that I enjoy in daily workouts and in the accumulation of miles that I see within each week of training. I feel satisfaction in knowing that I tried my best in races-that I did not shrink from suffering-and sometimes I am even proud of my results.
But I am never satisfied with my race performances in the sense of being content never to improve on a newly set standard. To the contrary, even my very best performances are savored for no more than an hour or two before I start thinking about how much faster I could run in the future if I changed this, tried that, etcetera.
Sports psychologists say that the "spirit of discontent" is a hallmark psychological characteristic of high-performing athletes. Among them is Stephen Long, PhD, author of Level Six Performance. "Excellence begins with a level of dissatisfaction with your performance and productivity-fulfillment is overrated," Long writes therein. There are countless examples of elite athletes who spend little time celebrating their victories before setting down their trophies and scanning the horizon for new goals. My favorite example is that of the insatiable Haile Gebrselassie, the first words out of whose mouth after setting his second marathon world record in Berlin last year were "I can run faster." That is totally awesome.
Those who do not share the champion athlete's never-satisfied mindset might read Geb's words and feel sorry for him and assume that running does not make him happy. But he could well be the happiest runner on earth. He's so happy being a runner that he refuses to talk of retiring, but promises to keep training, racing and striving until he is effectively dragged out of the sport by the bodily disintegration of aging. The spirit of discontent not only does not stand in the way of Gebrselassie's enjoyment of running but is in fact the very manner in which he enjoys running. He just can't get enough speed in much the same way lovers can't get enough time together and some musicians can't get enough performing.
Make no mistake: Never satisfied is good.