The Importance of Knowing What Drives You
When I was 9, I entered the River Oaks Elementary School bike race.
Ten kids racing three laps around the school parking lot on a Saturday morning for all the glory.
I loved my blue bike. I was fast and I was excited…at least until I showed up for race day.
We parked our car. I unloaded my bike. My heart dropped.
Everyone else’s bike was bigger than mine. I had a little kid bike. How did I not know this?
None of the other kids said anything bad about me or my bike. But my mind was racing. My bike was small. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough.
Shame became my life’s fuel.
As soon as I felt that sense of shame I had no choice but to win. I had to show the other kids that I was good enough.
We wheeled up to the starting line. To my right and left, everyone sat a few inches higher than me.
And then the starter yelled, “Ready, Set, Go!”
My pedals spun with determination. I pulled into an immediate lead that I wasn’t going to relinquish. As I came to the first turn, I already had won the race. I just had to maintain this pace. I knew I would.
Then the noise of a skidding tire on some loose gravel. A hard lean to the left followed by the burn of pavement across my face.
My bike and I were sliding across the ground as all of the other bikes passed.
I jumped to my feet. Tossed a leg over my bike and was off. Two of my teeth had gone missing. I didn’t notice. I needed to win. I pedaled as if my life depended on it. Two and a half laps to reel them all in. I passed one kid…then another…another...
But the finish line arrived too soon.
My parents rushed to me. First to tend to my bloodied face and then to praise me for getting up and finishing in third place.
Their words were meaningless.
It didn’t matter that I’d gotten up. Third place meant I’d lost. My bike wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. And now I had proof.
I’ve lived with this belief for all of my life since. It’s fueled me.
Unexamined Beliefs Result in Unconscious Choices
After that bike race, life narrowed. There was less room for choices with shame at the wheel.
I routinely chose the path that would be most impressive to others. What brought me joy or best utilized my true talents was sacrificed for appearance.
I had no choice but to get good grades in school. No choice but to try to get into the best college that I could. No choice but to get a high-paying degree.
I was on autopilot. And it worked for a long while.
But over time, each success felt less important, less me. Exhaustion grew. Burnout loomed.
It took starting a company, raising venture capital, and burning my most precious relationships before I finally realized how hell-bent I was on proving myself still to those same goddamn kids at that bike race. But those kids weren’t around any longer to tell me when or if I was good enough.
The shame-fueled belief that I wasn’t good enough had led me on an endless chase for approval.
The boy who felt small when he was nine became a man who tried to prove himself at every turn.
Out of the Shadow, Into the Light
We all have these beliefs. They lurk behind us like a shadow. Whispering in our ear who we need to be. Nudging us to continue the same behavioral pattern.
There are two risks to not bringing unconscious beliefs into the light.
First, we risk burnout. Shame-filled beliefs leave us living and working for others, not ourselves. Giving effort that isn’t truly ours.
Parker Palmer's definition of burnout is helpful one:
Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess…it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.
Motivation to prove yourself is a limited source of energy. Motivation to be yourself is an unlimited source of energy.
Second, behind each shadow belief is a part of ourselves that we’ve rejected or lost long ago.
For me, it was the fun of competition. The pure joy of pushing myself and seeing what I was capable of. But doing it for me, not others.
Only through bringing the belief into the light that we have a chance to reclaim and reintegrate those parts of us.