Have you ever thought about how we define or measure success? During the past 25 years I have worked in various types of conditions ranging from Ethiopian villages to the Formula One paddock. It has been a privilege to meet lots of very successful people along the way, but walking alongside them has also shown that success comes with a price, and often doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as they thought it would.
My own journey of seeking answers to these questions started in Ethiopia during the mid-nineties. I was working as a missionary doctor and my time there was one of the key moments of my life. During the quiet evenings I had time to gaze at the stars and think about how I could help people to be healthier and perform better. I also asked myself, what are the building blocks of my own health and wellbeing?
In my work I have used a tool called the “Logical Framework Approach” to design projects. I like logic, so I decided to see if I could use the tool to map out my own life and find answers to the questions that I had in my mind. During this process I met a few key individuals that really opened my eyes, one of whom was Haile Gebrselassie. I had already identified particular elements that were an important part of good health, such as nutrition, recovery and physical activity. However, following the life of Haile opened up yet another level that went deeper to the core of what I was looking for.
Haile was widely acknowledged as one of the best athletes in the world. I had worked with lots of athletes already in Finland while I was the doctor for the Finnish Olympic Committee, but immediately I saw something different in Haile. He used to come and wake me up in the early hours of the morning with a huge smile on his face and drag me out for a morning run. He truly enjoyed what he was doing and seemed to love training. But still running did not define his entire life.
A good example of this came later on when I was in Finland operating on his Achilles tendon. Before the operation he took a hold of my hand and said: “Don’t worry if the operation is not successful, it’s just sport.” That was a surprising statement from someone whose livelihood was largely dependent on being able to run fast. It was evident that his identity was rooted in something more than his success on the track.
It seemed like my search for the building blocks of good health and wellbeing was finally becoming clear. I drew a circle and on the outer layer I placed the following six elements: physical activity, nutrition, recovery, biomechanics, mental energy and general health. Then in the middle of the circle I wrote the word “Core”. The outer layer is pretty straightforward. In order for us to achieve good health and wellbeing, we need to take a holistic preventive approach that takes into consideration these six elements. However, the inner part of the circle requires a bit more explanation. Here are a couple of examples.
I approach the core with three questions and the first one of these is: “Do you know who you are?” A Formula One driver came to seek help from me after losing his seat in the team. He felt like his life was over, since being an F1 driver had been his biggest dream and goal in life. We started working together to identify who he really was and what his identity was based on. Soon he started to realise that he needed to open his eyes a little bit wider and build a more sustainable foundation for his identity. One that would not be entirely be based on external circumstances and achievements, but rather on deeper issues such as values and character.
With a strong foundation for our identity, we can start to identify what we want in life. This is the second key question related to the core, but unfortunately many people miss the first one and jump straight to pursuing the second. I have worked with several clients who have achieved outstanding success in the corporate world. They have had clear goals in life and gone after their dreams with a passion that is hard to match.
However, despite achieving much of what they wanted, many of them have come to my office lost and unhappy. In the process of achieving their goals, they had lost themselves, and much of what really brought them meaning. Our identity should be like the keel in a boat that helps it to go in the right direction and stay upright even in the midst of a storm. Before heading out from the dock, we need to know that our boat is seaworthy and our keel is big enough to handle the journey.
The final question that relates to our core focuses our ability to control and manage our life. Many of my clients feel like they are controlled by the “system” and can’t maintain the kind of balance in their life that they would like. Our identity and purpose in life is the foundation of our core, but we need to have control of our life and make active decisions on a daily basis in order to stay on the right track. Naturally we can’t control everything, but when we start to evaluate our life, we find a surprising number of things that we can influence. Often we drive ourselves into a difficult situation simply through our own choices, rather than the wishes and demands of others. We need to maintain control of our own boat and enjoy the journey.
Let’s go back to the question of what success really means. There is no simple answer to this question, but based on what I have discovered, true success is a by product of the following logic. In order for us to be truly successful, we have to be able to perform well and also enjoy our life. The foundation for better performance and a better life is rooted in our health and wellbeing.
And finally, at the heart of everything is our core – our identity, purpose and control. Discovering our core gives us the commitment and motivation that we need to actively manage our life and make good choices on a daily basis. We have to ask ourselves what success really means to us, before we start blindly searching for it in the wrong places.