Being the GOAT Shouldn’t Be the Goal

Warwick Fairfax

March 22, 2021

There is a lot of discussion these days in the world of sports about who is the greatest of all time (GOAT).  This was brought to the fore recently with the tragic car accident of Tiger Woods in California.  He suffered extensive injuries to his legs.  This raised the question of what this would do to Woods’ quest to chase down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major golf championships.  Tiger is now 45 and has 15 major golf titles.  Is time running out for Tiger to chase down Jack’s major championship record and be thought of as the definitive best men’s professional golfer of all time?

Tom Brady recently won his seventh Super Bowl championship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after having won the previous six with the New England Patriots.  Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have won four Super Bowls each.  It would seem that Tom Brady has the edge as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time.

In tennis, we live in an age where three of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time are playing against each other.  Roger Federer until recently with 20 grand slam championships, eclipsing Pete Sampras’ record of 14, was thought of as the greatest of all time.  However, with Rafael Nadal winning the French Open last year, he now has tied Federer.   Nadal is widely expected to win this year’s French Open and thus beat Federer’s major championships record.  Novak Djokovic has 18 majors and could well win quite a few more.  All this to say, with Federer at age thirty-nine, while he may have previously been thought of as the greatest of all time, by the time all their careers are over, the GOAT in men’s tennis could well be Nadal or Djokovic.

Few of us are vying to be the greatest of all time in any sport.  But being thought of as the greatest in our field, our town, our community can still haunt us.  Perhaps we were one of the best basketball or baseball players in our high school.  We might have won many debating championships, or gymnastics competitions or diving meets.  In our careers, we might think of ourselves as the top lawyer or the top surgeon in our community, or perhaps even in our state.

The challenge is that tying our identity to being the greatest of all time in a sport, a career or any field of endeavor can be dangerous.  Even if many, including you, think of yourself as the GOAT in your area of influence, that status can be fleeting.  As many athletes say, records are made to be broken.  Having your identity being wrapped up in being the greatest is quite ephemeral.  Even if the numbers back you up today, someone may eclipse your record tomorrow.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls of the GOAT mindset?  Can you still try to be the best at what you do, go for it so to speak, without having your identity wrapped up in being the greatest of all time?  Yes, you can.  Here are some tips to avoid the downside of the GOAT mentality.

1. Don’t focus solely on records.

It is OK to want to be the best at your chosen field, wanting to be the best you can be.  Rather than fixating on records, though, focus day to day on improvement.  What should I do today to be a bit better than yesterday?  What can I do to get to the next level in my field?  We should always want to improve.  After all, in business and life, if you are not growing and improving, you are probably declining.

2. Enjoy the process.

Some of the greatest athletes have achieved the records they have because they truly love the game and everything about it.  They enjoy competing, of course.  But they also enjoy training, honing their craft. They enjoy the challenge of the process, and the work they have put in.  Yes, they want to win, but if they have given it their all, have prepared as well and as hard as they can, the truly great players seem to handle even losses better than others.  Nobody likes losing, but if you have worked hard and focused on the process, it makes it easier.

3. Have other areas to focus on.

Having other activities you enjoy can create balance in your life.  You often hear great athletes when they have families saying how much they enjoy being with their families and their kids.  Some who have small children bring their kids with them on the road.  No matter how much you love what you do, you should think of yourself as more than what you do.

4. Keep your identity separate from your profession.

When you start seeing your sense of self as solely or primarily wrapped up in your chosen profession, that is very dangerous.  You have to see yourself as a human being with inherent value whose self-worth does not depend on records or public accolades.  How often do we see an athlete or public figure fall from grace in part because they began to believe their own press clippings?  They begin to think, “I really am the greatest of all time.”  We think of the phrase, “Pride comes before a fall.”  This actually comes from Proverbs 16:18 in the Bible, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (NIV).

5. Hold it all lightly.

Records come and go.  You might be in the prime of your athletic career or be the leader of your organization.  It will not last.  Someone will take your place eventually.  That is certain and inevitable.  Enjoy what you do, but don’t hold on too tight.

When all is said and done and your glory days are behind you, what matters most is not your records and your accolades.  What matters more is your legacy.  How did you treat people along the way?  How did you play the game?  You may have given it your all, but did you do it with grace, being modest in victory and conciliatory in defeat?  At the end of the day, will your legacy be one that people, including you can be proud of?  Will it be a life of records and achievement, or will it be a life of significance?

Reflection

  • How much is your identity wrapped up in being the greatest of all time in your field?
  • How will you decouple who you are from what you do?
  • What one step will you take this week, to having a more balanced and sustainable approach to your life?

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