To Strive? Or To Find Contentment?

DD2 = Dear 2nd Daughter

Our school’s girls’ running group

About  four months ago, an email was sent out to the staff at our high school asking if anyone would be interested in organizing a girls’ running group. The runners would train six weeks for a 5 km run in support of women’s mental health to be held May 7. I volunteered to help lead the initiative along with two other teachers. We soon had a group of about fifteen girls, many of whom had never run or been on any sports team before, and they committed to running twice per week.

I remember the first run we did in the pouring rain at the end of March. Our goal was to run for two minutes and then walk for a minute, and I stayed behind with the slowest runners. A girl I’ll call F.H. was not able to maintain the two-minutes-on, one-minute-off pace, and so I changed it to a minute on followed by a minute off for her. Still, she couldn’t maintain it.

But F.H. came out faithfully week after week, and before too long, she was running three minutes for every minute of walking. The day of our 5 km run, she woke up with a sense of dread, and would have been glad to miss the event. After completing the run, however (with a few walking breaks), she was on a high, eager to sign up for the next 5 km road race.

And so our group, which was to train for six weeks, will be training until the end of the school year, and we’re signed up for another 5 km run June 18. Yesterday, F.H. led our group, running 17 minutes before her first stop. She’s got a goal for her June 18 run, and she’s psyched.

Noncompetitive vs. competitive running

I have helped to coach a few cross country running and track teams over my teaching career, but never have I been so satisfied with coaching as I am now with this non-competitive group. It is heartening to see a completely nonathletic student respond to the safe, no-pressure invitation to try running in a non-competitive environment. And it’s wonderful to see that same student experience the runner’s high, to gain enthusiasm, and a “Wow! I can do this!” confidence.

At the same time, I understand the excitement of elite athletes. DD2 finished her university track year with two bronze medals at the Provincial Championships. She has started her summer season with a tour of the U.S., and she has high hopes of competing in the Canadian Nationals in July. I’m thrilled for her whenever she achieves a personal best time, and I share hopes for a great season with her. But I keep those hopes tempered.

The last thing I want is for DD2 to carry a disappointment about not achieving . . . whatever. I don’t think that there is any achievement that can ultimately satisfy an elite athlete. Is it enough to make Nationals? To get to the finals in Nationals? To medal in Nationals? Is it enough to compete internationally? To make the Olympics? To medal in the Olympics? For every level reached, a higher level beckons. And that Olympic gold? How many times does it have to be won to guarantee satisfaction?

The point is, when it comes to elite athletics, there is no guarantee of lasting satisfaction. And when elite athletes do make the decision to step back from competition, some find it very difficult to pursue non-competitive work-outs for the sake of fitness. There’s a humbling to it. A sense of something lost. Compare that to the happiness of F.H. – just delighted to run for 17 whole minutes without stopping.

Connection to personal finance?

In the personal finance bloggosphere, I see parallels to athletics. There are the badass elites – buying their homes outright in their 20s; achieving FIRE in their 30s; becoming multi-millionaires by age 40 … And on the other extreme, there are the “completely nonathletic” – the maxed-out debtors living payday to payday in middle-age, trying to turn things around.

I can’t help but think there’s the danger of a constant inner churning for some among the elites. A hyper competitiveness that is never satisfied with its own level of frugality, earnings, savings, investments … because there is always someone else who seems to be doing better, younger, faster. By the same token I have had the pleasure of sharing many, “Wow! We can do this!” moments with fellow debtors. We really are happy to have found this previously unknown capacity within ourselves to be financially disciplined, tenacious, and smart. We’re delighted to pay off a debt – or to have saved an emergency fund.

A balance between striving and contentment

For DD2, I try to keep my hopes balanced, and I encourage her to do the same. Of course I want her to reach her potential. I admire her ambition and her commitment to running. I join in her excitement about her big dreams. But more than that, I hope that she’ll find a happiness in sport and physical fitness for the long term. Thirty years from now, will she be able to experience the joy of running with no competitive agenda? Like her mom? And as for F.H., I hope that she keeps on finding motivation to run longer and stronger. It’s great to see in her the beginnings of a pursuit of excellence – because with it come growing confidence and spark.

In the same way, I marvel at the achievements of the pf superstars. Money in the hands of wise financial planners can accomplish great things, and it’s exciting to learn the plans and accomplishments of the badasses. I hope they reach all of their goals and then some. But more than that, I hope that they find contentment for the long run – satisfaction in the life they’ve set themselves up for. And as for the reformed maxed-out debtors, I hope we all transition from recognizing we can do it to a pursuit of excellence in financial health that, only a few years ago, we wouldn’t even have conceived of. I hope that we all aspire not just to an absence of the negative of debt, but to the presence of positive opportunities and possibilities that come with financial fitness.

Is it possible to strike a healthy balance between striving and contentment? Your comments are welcome.


26 comments on “To Strive? Or To Find Contentment?

  1. Awesome insight as usual, my friend. I work to help our kids find that same balance. Right now they all have goals they’re working on. Three are athletic goals and Madelyn is working seriously on attaining professional artist status. I try to encourage them and cheer them on when they work hard and when they reach goals, yet I try just as hard to help them understand that their goals are not “who they are”. It’s an important balance. As someone who struggled for years with perfectionism, I’m trying hard to help my kids avoid that often destructive trait.

    1. “their goals are not ‘who they are'” – well said! I hope that your kids take in the wisdom you have to offer them. So many tricky balances involved in life, aren’t there?

  2. Congrats Ruth for finding the balance yourself, helping DD2 reach her potential and for helping F.H. realize hers. As our kids are getting ready to tackle bigger goals, I’m finding I’m turning more into a coach myself. Helping guide them, prioritize things, and helping them see what’s important and what’s not. With so many changes it can be tough to find the balance, but it can be achieved.

  3. Running is a great way to acheive what you never thought possible. I always hated the idea but then when my wife took it up, I figured I’d give it a try. I don’t look like a pro but I now run a few times a week. You should be proud for helping that girl find her belief in herself. Even if she doesn’t continue running, she’ll know that she was able to break through her ‘wall’ and will have that with her forever.

  4. Balance is the key, for sure. When you have those big goals and experience all the small wins along the way, it can be easy to hyper focus and strive for more and more. And if progress is slowed or stopped for any reason, it can be difficult to handle. Finding the joy and contentment should be the ultimate goal (though this is often easier said than done).

    I’ve experienced this in TaeKwonDo – I realized when I started I would never be the “best” black belt. But I didn’t even think I would get to black belt, so I was elated when I did. And I continue to practice (when my body cooperates) for the love of the art and the sense of community in my school. I think that’s contentment.

    1. I think that is contentment too. There is nothing wrong with a pursuit of excellence. What an achievement to get your black belt! Especially sweet when you didn’t think you ever would.

  5. Love this post! Congratulations to your daughter and FH for their accomplishments, and to you as well for helping them get there.

    I think contentment comes with experience. The more we strive, the more we learn from the achievements or disappointments. Eventually (hopefully) we find the proper balance.

    1. You’re right – there’s a learning curve that happens with striving, achieving, meeting with disappointment, and then adopting contentment. And it’s one that takes more than one turn. Thank you, Amy.

  6. I think it’s easy to find a balance between striving and contentment. When I was diving I was fairly good and placed in the top 10 in state each year. I was okay with not getting higher because I didn’t have the time or resources to make that step change to the top 5 and I was okay with that. I’ve never been much of a runner, but I got upset that I could enver break that 5 mile mark. Like F.H. I kept at it, studied some about better form, pacing (what’s pacing? lol), and stride, etc… and holy hell I knocked out 5 miles like it was nothing.

    I like competing in races, but I am not competitive at all. I just compete with myself and like with the half marathon I ran, I wanted to break 2 hrs. I didn’t do that – stupid hills – but I have a goal for the next one. The same with triathlons. I won’t be doing any ironmans, but I like the challenge of the quarter/olympic distance because it’s still fun and challenging. I was super excited after my last one because I thought I’d missed my goal time again due to the wind slowing everything down, but then I beat it by 5 minutes! Now my goal for the next one is 15 minutes less than my original goal. Like F.H. it jsut takes training and time to work up to those things.

    I’m happy not being in the top 20% because I’m doing it for me, not to win some medal. I like setting and trying to break my own timing goals. 🙂

    1. Mr. SSC, I think you are blessed with a disposition/mindset that few manage to attain. From what you say, you really are able to pursue your own excellence without the accompanying angst that I have both seen in others and experienced in myself. That attitude/discipline is of great value and has no doubt rippled out in many positive ways for your and your family.

  7. Great post, the comparisons are very effective! I ran my first 5K last year,me- a woman who said she would never run, and I came in 13th for my age group. At first, I felt proud. Then, I started to look at other runners that I knew, and I began to regret not starting sooner, or not pushing harder, or not being more committed. Comparison is a huge time waster, and I had to remind myself that all I had was right now, I couldn’t change the past, but I could decide right now to keep running.

    There are times I battle the same thoughts about PF. Regrets can slow me down and stop me from effectively using the knowledge I have now. I am choosing to be focused on the gift of today, and grateful for the lessons of my past.

    1. Wonderful that you’re choosing to be focused on the “gift of today” : ) I love it that you ran your first ever 5 Km! Sometimes, a late start brings on an appreciation that is missed by those who start earlier. Interesting how your pursuit of financial fitness is coinciding with this new pursuit of physical fitness. Here’s to your continuing with both!

  8. Like any good athlete, you should always try to improve & do better. The tough part is knowing if you gave it your best effort & accept the results whatever they might be.

    In all aspects of life we need to be realistic. Personally, I know I can complete the 100m dash but I know I most likely wouldn’t medal. I’d be content just to finish (hopefully not in last place).

    With PF, our past decisions help determine our future possibilities. Unless our life circumstances drastically change for the better, we will be content to become debt-free in our current decade of life (it’s realistic for our current financial shape). Planning to attain FIRE is a great goal but “false hope” because we have too much ground to regain at the moment.

    1. Josh, if you become debt-free within the next decade, you’ll still be younger than we were – by far – when we started our journey to debt-freedom. I wouldn’t call FIRE a false hope for you. The E in FIRE (to me anyway) means some time before the age of 65. I think you’ll achieve that. Just because it won’t be in the next 10 years doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

  9. As a former athlete myself, I struggle with this exact idea. In competitive athletics at any level the goal is to win. If you don’t push yourself to win, you’re failing to do your best. Failure is always on the table. Not only that, you push yourself until you literally break in the quest of a very short lived glory. That’s just the reality athletes face.

    Thankfully, life is not too much like athletic competitions. Many people can “win” with money (although few can outperform markets). “Beating” someone else with money doesn’t give you the delicious taste of victory… it gives you a responsibility to teach and help others along the way.

    The way that you and FH view running is as tool or experience to help your life. That’s how healthy people view money too. Even healthy people who want to FIRE or become very wealthy because they can.

    1. “‘Beating’ someone else with money doesn’t give you the delicious taste of victory… it gives you a responsibility to teach and help others along the way.” I’m so glad you see it that way, Hannah, but I don’t think everyone does. The best way to approach both money and physical fitness is, as you put it, “as a tool to help your life.”

  10. This is a really good analogy, especially how you point out the non-athletic runner is joyful about her progress. I agree it correlates to personal finance. I define “contentment” as a satisfaction that transcends circumstance, a la Philippians 4:11-13 where Paul says he has learned to be content in any circumstance, poverty or riches. Being content is different from being complacent–happy with the circumstances and unwilling to make change or progress. So yes, I think there is a balance, but it really has everything to do with your underlying goals and attitude and personal progress.

    1. Good point, Kalie – the difference between contentment and complacency. Those verses from Philippians really challenge me. My contentment is definitely higher when things are going well. When things are not going well (like my hockey team right now – on the wrong side of a 4-0 score and it’s only first period!) my contentment flies. I think that some of us settle into complacency because it dulls the pain of not achieving.

  11. Excellent article. So glad I came across this spiritual, in my mind, discussion, because finding contentment is very much what I’m all about at my stage of life. I was once told by a very wise woman that she had “given up comparing herself to others, many years ago”, her words sat heavy with me for a long time because though they represented ‘truth’, the idea of living without comparing oneself to another, seemed too tall an order in all contexts. Is it possible we are all born into our present contexts and we best find the thing that allows us to be our true Self without comparisons? Then again, how do we know what to try at, unless we try something just to see? Finally, when do we become an over achieving, contentment seeking failure without the courage to just try, or, get to know ones Self? I once read we don’t know what we want until we know what we don’t want.

    1. Hey Ed! Good to hear from you! Comparison with other people is a guarantee of mixed messages and deception. Are they as they present themselves to be? Would what works for them work for you? I think we can be guided to what allows us to be our true self by following what resonates with heart, mind, and spirit – and allowing ourselves to be challenged by what is uncomfortable but true. I wish you the very best in finding the contentment you seek. Thanks for reading and commenting : )

  12. Personal finance and personal health are very similar. You sometimes hear of frugality being referred to as a muscle.

    If you’ve never exercised your frugality muscle it can take a bit of time to get into shape. You can also go too hard, too fast, and set yourself back.

    Best way to improve your financial fitness is to set a steady pace. Make improvements each month and give them time to form a habit. After a while saving money wont feel difficult at all.

    1. That is very similar to the experience of F.H. in running. 2 minutes of running was “too hard, too fast”, and it might have set her back if we’d insisted upon maintaining that pace. Finding your own starting point can be tough, but once you have the “steady pace” and “Improvements each month” can happen. Thanks for your comment, Owen.

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