Does Success Breed Complacency?

Stretch yourself

Stretch yourself

I was in yoga class recently, confidently going through the series of poses when the instructor said, “I want you to feel successful.”  And I thought, “Huh.  What a strange thing to say.”

A week later, another instructor in cardio class said the same thing.  It must be the new exercise instructor mantra– help others feel successful.    And feeling successful is good, right?

For some reason, the gym makes me very contemplative, and since then I have been struggling to answer this question.  In the end, I have finally made some progress by continuing the yoga class analogy.

I started yoga in the yoga-for-the-masses kind of class.  It was very gratifying at first:  I can make an elegant tree pose!  A beautiful warrior pose! I feel strong and graceful!  I got to wear cute yoga clothes!

But then I wondered if I was doing the poses correctly and whether I could get more out of a yoga studio-type class.  And what a difference 20 people and $20 make.

The good news was that I probably was not doing anything to hurt myself in mass-class.  The bad news was that I wasn’t getting the most out of each pose because I would tend to stop when it got too uncomfortable.  I learned in yoga studio that by simply rotating my hips or shoulders a few more degrees, I could get much deeper into the pose and much, much, much more out of it.   But it was HARD.  And if it wasn’t hard, I was doing it WRONG.  A dying tree pose.  A wobbly warrior pose. Sweat galore.

I wrote recently about how I learned much more on my educational journey when the curriculum really challenged me.  Today, as I ponder my 3 AM question about complacency, I see that I have a complacency tendency that I should be more conscious of.  There have certainly been other instances in my life where I would kind of catch myself doing or saying something like “I’m in a rut”  that indicated I was in a rut.   Or boredom.  Boredom is definitely rut-defining for me, as is feeling distracted.  If I’m really engaged and in “flow” with my task, I am focused 100% on that task.  If my mind is wandering, then I’m only engaging superficially and I could benefit from a re-evaluation of my strategy or effort level.

Like yoga class, I think the feeling of success can breed complacency across the many facets of my life.  I don’t think the other extreme, feeling like a failure, is desirable either.  Yes, it can give spectacular results sometimes.  In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,  Amy Chua talks about the Chinese parenting philosophy of withholding praise to motivate achievement.  I can speak from first-hand experience that the approach works, damaging to the psyche though it might be.

So what to do?  How do we find the right balance?

Again, I turn to my yoga experience to conclude that the solution lies with having a guide, a mentor, or a coach.   My mass-class yoga class was full of empty praises, “Your form is perfect!” when I knew darn well that almost no one in the class was doing the pose properly, myself included.   This is guidance for the masses, so it only applies to some vanishingly small fraction (come to think of it:  not so dissimilar from this blog).  But in yoga studio, the instructor gave individual attention to correct gently while cheering our increments of progress.   My own academic, professional, and personal experience affirms the impact of a wise coach or mentor.  A few adjustments in my course, encouragement to continue, and acceptance of my shortcomings by my mentors allow me to sink deeper into my role and be more successful, instead of just feeling like it.

I don’t mean to criticize the mass-class teachers.  After all, there’s only so much you can do when you have a class of 35.  And sometimes we just need to go do something to feel successful, especially if the rest of our life feels like a wreck.  But I do wonder if we too easily have a tendency to lean towards the easy rut, rather than adjusting to take the bumpier but also more fruitful path.

In the book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Bill George discusses the importance of having a personal board of trustees….you know, to keep you “honest” and on the right track for each facet of your life.  To me, it’s more than whether it’s the right track.  Their role is also to challenge you to make sure you’re really stretching yourself in a productive way that’s right for you.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been to have a wonderful support network.  But support is where you find it.  I have never been afraid to ask for help at work, but somehow more reluctant to do so in my personal life, initially.  When I opened myself up to the wisdom and guidance of others, and acknowledged my need to do better, I was actually able to be more successful.  Those mentors and role models were all around me, if only I was open to their lessons.

As for yoga, the mass-class fits my budget and schedule for most days, and I can apply what I learn in yoga studio to self-correct and concentrate on sinking deeper.  I go back periodically to make sure I don’t develop any new bad habits.  And so, I can finish each class feeling like a winner.  Namaste.

(NOTE:  Neither of the subjects in these two pictures is me.)

Sink in

Sink in

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