What do Simone Biles and Michael Phelps have in common?
Besides being high achievers, they also have the same common denominator: DYSFUNCTION.
Each of these Olympians and many highly established industry leaders, influencers, authors and artists often reveal that they have had a troubled childhood, traumatic experiences, or a difficult upbringing. So, does dysfunction contribute to achieving greatness? The answer is YES. Here’s why:
From birth, we pursue one goal: comfort. We cry because we are uncomfortable. It is our only way to communicate our needs. The outside world is a new environment, and babies don’t like it. Soon, we use words to express ourselves, even if we often do it poorly.
Living is all about action and re-action and getting what we want and need. When someone speaks, we listen and usually respond. When it is cold, we put on a jacket. When we are thirsty, we drink. In other words, discomfort compels us to work towards comfort.
But if it’s really that simple, why do some people accomplish much more than others? Ever wonder why people like Simone Biles or Michael Phelps work so hard? The market is saturated with motivational books that tell us all about it. We learn how to harness motivation and achieve success. Unfortunately, as this genre increases, so does the failure rate. People seem to do an awful lot of reading and talking about success, instead of experiencing it.
Success is directly related to our comfort zone — or lack thereof. Because of dysfunction, these athletes and highest achievers are the most uncomfortable people in the world! They learned how to adapt in childhood. Those who experience prolonged and early trauma get comfortable being uncomfortable and, believe it or not, most don’t even know it. Dysfunction fuels their engine, underlying beliefs, and identity.
Keep in mind, however, that dysfunction is like Russian roulette. It could be the force that moves you forward toward validation and success. It can also be the weight that drags you to the ground.
Furthermore, not all dysfunctional people reach the same level of achievement. Their fate will not take the same course, despite pursuing the same goal: comfort through discomfort. One dysfunctional person might over-eat and become sedentary, which can lead to morbid obesity. Another might starve himself or over-train. The same dysfunction can push someone into drug use or other destructive behaviors but pull someone else into overworking or overachieving. Regardless, they all pursue the same goals; this is the epitome of dysfunction.
Subconsciously, these world-class athletes and highest achievers constantly set new goals to keep themselves busy — and to quiet the voices in their head. They run away from the dysfunction towards how the dysfunction makes them feel. Running from the cause to the effect can help someone break a world record or become an amazing artist. But it can also lead to profound failure, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction. Same purpose, different direction.
As there are a variety of dysfunctions, there are also different levels of comfort zones. The more significant the childhood trauma, the bigger the dysfunction. The degree of pain is equal to the level of comfort being chased. The more people achieve, the higher they set the bar. This vicious cycle often becomes the proverbial carrot that can never be reached. The battle breaks down the body and exhausts the mind.
Whether through work, hobbies, or other distraction, people camouflage the struggle subconsciously in order to cope. Furthermore, since there is a stigma associated with mental health, especially amongst elite athletes, awareness creates other problems. Some athletes use denial as a defense mechanism, which includes ignoring consequences and how they influence performance. That will inevitably affect some athletes’ careers and, subsequently, their lives.
Non-achievers commonly ask over-achievers what drives them, what makes them special. The answer depends upon the size of their dysfunction and the level of their pain. With that being said, what would you tell an eight-year-old gymnast who has had a healthy upbringing? Will this lack of misery limit her drive? I don’t think so. I’m not trying to justify failure or underperformance. I want to explore what pushes amazing world-class athletes to overachieve.
Most people want to harvest the crops of dysfunction without experiencing them. To cope, people do incredible things, such as inventing the light bulb, like Thomas Edison; building an empire while struggling with weight loss, like Oprah Winfrey; trading childhood for stardom, like Michael Jackson; creating the most successful product ever, like Steve Jobs; or even winning Olympic gold medals, like Michael Phelps. That’s what they do. They achieve. The highest achievers easily step out of their comfort zone because that’s where they live. It’s HOME to them.
So, after all that grueling work, why would successful people throw it all away? Often, troubled athletes, like Simone Biles, are unaware of their condition and the nature of their pursuit. They are attracted to discomfort and the pain it creates. When someone reaches a milestone, like winning another Olympic gold medal, it is normal to feel excitement, relief — and ultimately peace and comfort. But after his Olympic glory, Michael Phelps went public about his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Desperation sinks in when you realize that the peace you’ve been chasing all your life still eludes you, despite reaching your goals.
And so, some highest achievers constantly want more. It’s important to understand that they aren’t actually chasing money or status or medals. They don’t need more things; they simply want comfort. And if success doesn’t lead to that feeling, they don’t know what else to do. This drive is who they are. It’s like an engine they can’t shut down. They can’t stop. They’re afraid to stop. Sadly, suicide sometimes seems like the only option.
People keep moving forward or sometimes downward in pursuit of that illusive comfort zone, without realizing that the pursuit IS their comfort zone and what brings them peace. That explains why Simone Biles risked injury and eventually withdrew from the 2020 Olympics. It took a lot of strength and courage to make that decision. I am encouraged by athletes that share their emotional struggles and shed light on mental health issues. Many accomplished people are now suggesting that we seek inner peace rather than rewards and status. They’ve learned — sometimes the hard way — that these things don’t bring happiness.
I have lived all my life with dysfunction. My mother was emotionally unavailable to me in my early years and teens. But this fueled my determination to win a World Champion wrestling title at eighteen. My discomfort gave me the strength and confidence to leave everything behind and move to the United States at twenty-three. I have written several books and currently operate a successful business. I still wake up at four in the morning to go after other goals. I hustle because that’s all I know. That’s my identity. But I’m learning to find balance by working smarter, not just harder. I have always wanted to be comfortable, to heal from my childhood trauma, and prove to myself, my family, and the world that I am better than the messages I internalized in my youth.
I’m still restless and slightly uncomfortable, no matter how much I achieve or earn. So instead of DOING more, I started BEING more and learned that I am not defined by what I have, but what I think of myself and WHO I AM. Simone echoed this sentiment in a press conference right after announcing her withdrawal from the Olympics. She said that accolades and status do not define us.
Unfortunately, the highest achievers and mainstream media still constantly promote the opposite. We see endless posts about achievements, medals, and status, which suggests a standard for measuring success. That needs to change. We should be defined by the commitment to our goals, not our performance. When I stopped needing a certain outcome, I could start accepting who I am. I replaced criticism with love and resistance with acceptance, which has brought me the peace I was chasing.
We acquire our identity in the first six to eight years of life. That’s our blueprint. It’s who we are. And most everyone has a little bit. But being dysfunctional is almost a privilege. Now, it’s time to explore your dysfunction. Understand that you can control it with awareness and discipline. Observe your negative thoughts and how they affect you. Quarantine the ideas that cause problems. But continue to observe them in the background, so you can pull them out when you need some intense motivation. Try being more flexible with yourself and your goals. Things don’t always go as planned, so it’s crucial to understand the value of your work and the consequences of your commitments.
Learn to make hard look easy and new look old. Make discomfort a part of your journey and, with a little luck and greater awareness, you will find comfort and probably improve your performance, too. It’s like winning a lottery.
Have a successful dysfunctional day.