Most people see life as a kind of a race. They want to win. They want to get somewhere. They want to do it better than other people. Certainly, one can see how this approach can produce impressive results. By creating a competition, by creating a way to keep score, it’s natural that one will do well by those metrics.
The problem is that life isn’t a race, and even if it were, there’s no evidence that we’re all in the same race. “There is no race, there is only a runner,” the band Lucius sings in their song “Two of Us on the Run.” The tie to Stoicism there is not in the fact that the name of the band is the same as Marcus Aurelius’ stepbrother and co-emperor, it’s in the realization that while we are not racing each other, we’re still playing the sport. In fact, it’s a harder sport because without the ability to “win” we have to find new ways to measure and motivate ourselves.
Marcus Aurelius wrote about how if you want good in the world, you have to find it in yourself. He also wrote about what a sad sight it was when you looked at the people who were the most driven, the most competitive, the most angry. Where are they now?, he said. Not in some eternal winner’s circle, they’re dead and gone and forgotten…or soon to be forgotten.
Instead, we have to follow the lyrics to the song, and “just put one foot in front of the other.” Because that’s life. We do our best. We find motivation internally, intrinsically, in realizing our potential, in showing up, in doing the work. Not in comparison, not in ‘victory,’ because no such thing exists.