Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 12 2012

What does Lance’s fall tell us about the desire to achieve?

I keep putting off homework to read more news on Lance Armstrong. I’m not surprised by the doping evidence so I think that the story interests me because it wrestles with some of the big questions I’ve asked again and again as a cyclist and as a educator. Is ambition good? Does it always come at a cost of integrity? Is Lance’s story what we might expect from a winning obsessed culture and not so much a reflection of his own character?

In cycling, there is an assumption that winning is better than losing and that racing in bigger and stronger fields is better than racing locally. This makes sense to me-winning requires dedication and hard work. It requires pushing through the pain of the moment in an attempt to secure lasting glory and respect.

I think the same mindset is often true in academia. It seems strange to want to attend a less competitive graduate school, knowingly take easier classes, accept a B instead of an A or turn down opportunities to work at Research I universities. It’s not that I’m not working hard, but I know that I could be taking a math class that leaves no room for exercise or that I could be waking up early every morning to be the best triathlete on my team. It is hard to convince myself that my decisions to relax are okay, especially in the wake of my friend’s death, because everyone was so impressed that she rarely relaxed and got so much done in her short life.

Yet, I make the decision to relax or take Saturday off and find myself happy that I’m not working constantly and appreciating the time I’m spending with loved ones. There is part of me that knows I could be publishing articles or making my blog as cool as Dan Meyer’s or writing a book based on Teach for Us blogs. Part of me knows that I could be doing more and feels guilty for not getting there. I don’t know how to distinguish between wasting my life by spending all my time working and wasting my life by not accomplishing what I know I’m capable of.

But back to Lance-he clearly worked incredibly hard to be the fastest cyclist in the Tour for a number of years. His focus, motivation and drive were not called into question by the doping revelations. Perhaps doping could make any cyclist faster, but it can’t make any cyclist a champion. It is clear that he was considered a better person for wanting to be the best so badly that he spent years training. He was paid millions. His story inspires(ed?) people all around the world.

It seems odd that we’d value his winning so highly until it was publicly confirmed that he used banned drugs to help him, and then not reflect on the culture of our country that put such a premium on success. Even at my University, some people respect the best triathletes on the team more than they respect the people like me who are perpetually injured and slow. Ever since my major crash three years ago that has kept me slow on the bike, I’ve had to deal with negative emotions frequently when I realize that some people don’t take me seriously because I’m not throwing everything I’ve got into the sport. Because my body forced me to give up the goal of winning, it feels like some just think I’m lazy for not caring about beating others.

It’s easy to be disappointed in Lance-I’m most upset that he criticized people who were telling the truth about him and called them liars when he knew better. But, in other ways, he seems to reflect the epitome of the “winning” mindset that is bred into us in all of the sports endeavors I’ve participated in. I hate to think of some of the negative thoughts I’ve had towards other cyclists who were faster than me and to think that these thoughts were motivated by the same pervasive desire to beat others that Lance felt. I didn’t dope, but I severely damaged my body trying to beat somebody and as I type I can still feel the pain in my right hip that started years ago. Cheating to do better in school appears to be a common as doping in the tour. People openly admit cheating in college to me without expecting that I’ll be angry at them. Cheating scandals plague the test-score obsessed country. In both situations there is focus on the ends instead of the means. Are the two problems really so different?

It is easy for me to judge Lance because he has more confirmed lies in the USADA report than I expect to make for the rest of my life. However, I know that I have been rude or upset or sullen many times because somebody beat me at something. Often these negative emotions are directed towards myself, but I know that my negativity doesn’t make the world a better place. These feelings are only a distraction from making the most of my capacity for good. Anyone out there who is judging Lance today might ask themselves how their life might have been happier or more productive if they had been less focused on winning. However, abandoning success doesn’t seem possible either because I know that Lance’s hard work inspired many to take action in their own lives and resulted in positive good. Although the report leaves no doubt in my mind that Lance doped, I’m still plenty confused about how to think about his gigantic desire for success. His desire and motivation to win and to fight cancer can’t be all bad even though it led him down some bad paths repeatedly. What parts of Lance’s ambition can we look up to still? What parts of my own ambition do I honor? Or is my culture deluding me to equate ambition with goodness?

I have a feeling that I’m confusing an issue that wouldn’t be hard at all for my yoga teacher to sort out. Do your best while honoring your body and mind and accept whatever happens and move forward to trying your best in the next moment.

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    Learning more about life than math…

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