Finding Success at the Intersection of Achievement and Joy

Be inspired to find more joy in your success through the story of Caeleb Dressel. Get tips on re-igniting your joy as a woman leader.

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Finding Success at the Intersection of Achievement and Joy

Have you ever gotten so focused on a goal or outcome that you’ve lost your passion and joy about the project along the way?

Sports are often a great metaphor for life and leadership, and last week’s US Olympic Swimming Trials were no exception. There were so many interesting and inspiring storylines that played out during the week.

But, following on the heels of last week’s article on Pursuing Success: Perseverance and Strategic Retreats, one story that jumped out at me was that of Caeleb Dressel.

Caeleb achieved huge success in the Tokyo Olympics winning five gold medals. A year later, he withdrew from the World Championships and left swimming entirely.

“I knew I was in a spot where it wasn’t healthy,” Dressel said. “I got to that point where I was like if I don’t break a World Record at whatever event, then my career is a waste.”

Do you see the story he was telling himself about success? He had gotten so focused on measuring success by one specific outcome that he negated all the other good things he was achieving.

And that story took all the joy out of swimming for him.

Recognizing that, he did what many people don’t allow themselves to do. He walked away from the pool.

In other words, he took a strategic retreat.

He returned to swimming in 2023 (after a nine-month break), and last week, he won several races at the swim trials, assuring himself of another trip to the Olympic Games.

But what really struck me about what he said during interviews (and what the commentators consistently raved about) was how much he was enjoying himself.

Even when he didn’t win.

One of the big things that Caeleb had rediscovered during his strategic retreat was his joy in swimming.

Like Caeleb, we often get so focused on goals and outcomes that we get to a place that’s no longer healthy. One key indicator of that is a loss of joy and pleasure in the journey.

You might still be getting the outcomes – or some of them – but you find no pleasure in it. Everything feels like a grind, or worse, a disappointment.

This has been an important lesson for me in my career journey too. It’s all too easy for me to fall into the mindset that work has to be “serious and significant”. The important things are focus and excellence.

Yes, focus and excellence are important, but without joy, the object of our focus can quickly lose its meaning.

The true dilemma then is to find ways to succeed, be focused, strive for excellence, without losing your joy.

Strategic retreats are one way, but retreats as Caeleb Dressel took can be costly. Most employers don’t provide six- or nine-month sabbaticals, and it can be disruptive for entrepreneurs to take lengthy breaks.

So, how do you find your joy when things get too heavy, when working toward your goals becomes a grind?

Here are some things you can do to change your story about success:

  1. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Remember how to laugh at your mistakes. Humor enlivens any story, even the ones we tell ourselves.
  2. Take small breaks and mini celebrations. Enjoy the sunshine during your lunch. Have coffee with a favorite colleague. Have a celebration of an incremental success with your team.
  3. Remember the “why” behind your goal. Why is it important? What joy will the end result bring you? How can you tap into that joy with each milestone you achieve along the way? The meaning behind our goals is often what provides the joy. It’s important to stay in touch with that along the way.
  4. Find other people who make you laugh. One of the things I love about my husband is that he is quick to laugh and bring a smile to others’ faces. He helps me see when my story is filled with a bit too much drama and not enough joy.

And if none of that works, maybe it is time to reassess that particular goal and find one that will bring you joy.

We often forget that success doesn’t have to be all drudgery and “hard work”.

Success can be paired with joy. In my opinion, it really isn’t success if it isn’t.

Caeleb Dressel found that out the hard way. His new story is that he wants to race as long as he can find meaning and excitement in the sport, which he is clearly doing now.

It was such an inspiration to see the sheer joy on Caeleb Dressel’s face at the US Olympic Swimming Trials – even when the outcome wasn’t what he probably wanted.

He found his joy in the journey again, which seemed to make the winning outcomes sweeter and the less-than-ideal outcomes okay for him.

How do you pair your success with joy? How can you do it more often?

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