Annie Duke: A Lesson on Happiness – and Learning – from Olympic Legend Eric Heiden

I recently visited the Lake Placid Olympic Museum and saw a quote from Eric Heiden, arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics:

My goal was always to cross that finish line with nothing left, and if I did that, I really didn’t care what anybody else had done. I had been successful, I had satisfied my desire to do well at this race, and if it was a gold medal, it was great; if it was tenth place, it was just as good because I’d learn something about my ability.

That is a particularly remarkable thing for Heiden, who set four Olympic records in speed skating in 1980, to say because he competed in a sport where he was literally judged by how he did in comparison to others. Yet this is not how he judged himself, overcoming both the structure of the sport he competed in and the way the human brain generally works.

Even when not competing in a speed skating race, our natural human tendency is to judge our happiness mainly as how we compare to other people. We develop our own definitions of happiness based on how we are faring in the areas that we value (money, relationships, family, professional accomplishments, health, etc.). We imagine we measure our happiness objectively by these measures, not by how we are doing compared to anyone else. We think our happiness is absolute rather than relative. But we evolved to compete for resources and this competitive drive extends to happiness.

For instance, in surveys asking whether people would rather earn $70,000 in 1900 (when the average income was just $450) or in the early 21st Century, a lot choose 1900. That great wealth in 1900 provided only some of the comforts we enjoy in the modern middle class. Even if you were super wealthy a century ago, you didn’t have safe prenatal and infant care, antibiotics, anesthetics, vaccines against dangerous diseases, refrigerators, air conditioning, or a computer you could hold in your hand. All you really had for your $70,000 was the feeling you were way ahead of everyone around you. For a lot of people, that’s enough.

We would accept less (even open sewers) as long as we can feel we are soaring above our peers.

Eric Heiden would clearly take the $70,000 today. Although we as spectators judged him relative to the competitors in the race, he was able to separate himself from that and determine how he felt based on his performance, not based on his finish. I recognize that maybe it was easier for him to transcend comparison with others because he won all the time. But it’s also possible that he won all the time in part because he had shifted his mindset.

Heiden truly embodies one of my favorite Ernest Hemingway quotes: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.” If you focus on the competition against yourself, you have the potential to maximize learning opportunities.