It is a distinctly human phenomenon to award prizes to exceptional talent and ability. We note the performances that are striking in how unusual, influential, and precise they are. Likewise, we herald the performer as being someone to whom we should aspire, a creative or athletic idol we hope to get near or match in skill. But how often do we consider the person behind the craft? Does it matter what kind of character they possess, and how would that affect our assessment of their skill?
Success requires many characteristics, including hard work, determination, conscientiousness, and resiliency. However, it also takes luck–not only the luck of opportunity and good-fortune, but the luck of being born with a body and/or mind that is equipped with the ingredients for high production and reward. Because we are prone to rely on results to configure a narrative about how we arrived at where we are, we underestimate the importance of the unpredictable. One can have all the right attributes but no opportunity; one can have little talent but enjoy auspicious circumstances and wind up wildly prosperous. Who we are, and who we become, hinges on biological factors as well as environmental exposure. The experience of our ancestors is embedded in our current lives, now proven by the relatively new field, epigenetics, which studies how environmental influences cause heritable changes in gene expression without altering the actual DNA sequence. Every choice we make, every reflex we execute is at least partially dependent upon a long history of neurobiological layers to which we do not have direct access.
Just as we did not choose how tall we are, we did not choose to be talented in one field over another, so why should we value aesthetic and athletic ability as anything more than uncontrollable phenomenon? If no one is the “true” author of their gifts, it becomes a bit curious to offer applause. If an elite athlete wins a competition, that is the only standard by which we assign praise. It is clear we value the output of an individual more than we do their effort and direction, and praise encourages both the individual and fans to maintain focus and duty. It is an assumption that one arrives at the highest level because of hard training, and while the best do indeed push themselves to their limits, there are plenty of mediocre athletes that spend even more hours and intensity working to attain the same status, but it is biologically determined that they will never reach that height. What captures our attention isn’t the investment of training, it is the result and the belief that we can always improve. It fosters motivation through comparison and competition; acknowledging unequal abilities supports progress by applying energy to what we want to be defined as.
It is common to allow a positive impression to influence the judgments of a person’s overall character, a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. It can easily occur when we are given little information about someone but value what is known, so when an athlete wins a well-known big race it becomes easy to assign to them other desirable traits and conclude we’d like them as our friend. With a peek at their potential, their popularity swells and they will enjoy the ride of being a celebrity without fully understanding the consequences that can accompany that position. Continued success increases the demand to know about the person behind them; focusing on the object that has what you want is adaptive because it helps you know what is necessary to acquire it. Winners never find themselves short on friends or fans, and it can be easy to conceal any personality flaws that may exist until a scandal or negative event exposes them. Lance Armstrong is an illuminating example of how a poor moral character isn’t damaging to one’s art unless their art turns out to be invalid. Exceptional performance insulates individuals from the kind of criticism we practice with our peers. Simply put, being an asshole won’t ruin your career provided you are sufficiently talented.
Social media has introduced an entirely new stage for prestige. We have created a virtual world brimming with pseudo-celebrities with anemic resumes. Average runners are able to cultivate an online following that affords them the same idolization a professional experiences, turning the idea that success results in popularity on its head. In this case, a well-advertised persona can usher others into believing they are either natural bearers of superior athletic capacity or atypically inspirational. Unfortunately, this platform is less stable than for professional athletes, and criticism is more likely to reach (and sting) the promoter. While it’s never appealing to witness self-indulgence, most always the reason why an average athlete actually assumes massive recognition is because they sincerely motivated someone. It’s an avenue for those who do find meaning beyond perfection to reach others and deliver their stories, which contribute to beneficial changes in the lives of others while reinforcing their own commitment.
The limits of our machinery shouldn’t be a deterrent for pursuing an interest, especially if it creates purpose and meaning for the participant. One of the wonderfully gratifying feelings of being a race director is that we get to observe people at all different stages and levels overcome challenges and advance along their own paths. It’s amazing to see transformations in physique, strength and endurance, and attitude. Finding local or personal success is sufficient for most and it is much more easily obtained, but dreaming big has benefits, too. Believing in a lofty goal can reveal new corners of life we were unaware of and we can discover new passions and facets of who we are. Trying is a task on its own, and so much can be accomplished simply by giving the adventure a go, making corrections when you missed the mark, learning with every mistake, perhaps even honoring the realization that it wasn’t for you at all.
We may not all have what it takes to be the best in everything, but that is precisely the inequality that leads to innovation and creativity, and finding just what it is that makes us feel whole.
By Tanya Stahler