A few days ago, my hockey coach gave an impromptu speech about how accepting our role on the team would lead to a more victorious season. He explained that each of us played a vital role in the success of the team—from the first-string forward to the third-string goalie—and that we should accept our position with a smile. He also emphasized that we have a responsibility to give 100% every day in practice, because we should strive to be the best player on the team. Nothing else, he said, is acceptable. These two roles seem contradictory to me—is it even possible for us to accept our positions with a smile, while at the same time striving to be the best player on the team?
Coaches have been giving me this speech since I was five, but I’ve never been confused about it until now. Maybe it’s because in the past, my job as the starting goalie on the team was clear. Now, I’m a third string. I practice with the team and cheer from the bench. So when my coach spoke with us earlier this week, it brought up an underlying question—is it possible to happily accept your place in the world while simultaneously desiring and working towards bettering your position?
This puzzle can be separated into two parts. Is it possible to accept your place in the world while desiring and working towards bettering it? And if so, is it possible to do so happily?
How can these two seemingly opposite concepts—accepting and desiring more—work together to produce success? To accept something is “…to endure (a… situation) with patience; to tolerate; to come to terms with.” It then becomes clear that desiring more is almost inherent within the concept of acceptance. Enduring and tolerating imply some sort of discontent, or at least a sense of uneasiness. One does not endure eating a scrumptious desert, one endures attending a mandatory boring general studies class, all the while desiring and working towards getting into the higher-level classes that one is interested in.
So instead of looking at these two concepts as opposites, it’s helpful to look at them as complements to one another. Accepting and desiring more exist simultaneously in a constant tension-filled relationship. With the proper balance, this relationship can lead to great success. Too much acceptance and the result may be a sad lack of motivation, while too much desire for more may lead to false hope and a false sense of reality. There is an optimal level of balance that allows these two distinct concepts work together to allow the greatest level of success.
Relating all this back to hockey, I can accept, tolerate, and come to terms with the fact that I am currently a third-string goalie, but I can do this while still working hard to change where I am. What matters is that I balance my acceptance and desire to change.
Let’s now look at the second part of the puzzle—is it possible to happily accept your place in the world while simultaneously desiring and working towards bettering your position? Well, what does it mean to be happy? Philosophers have been asking this question for more than two thousand years, but for now, let’s settle for a currently generally accepted definition. Most people would agree that happiness is an emotion associated with doing things you enjoy or being around people whom you enjoy being around (in addition to other things).
We also need to look at what kinds of things we accept while desiring to do more. What’s the difference between accepting my being a third-string goalie in hockey and accepting my C in astronomy class? I work hard to change my position as a third-string goalie because I want to get better; I care about becoming a better goalie! On the other hand, I don’t really care about my astronomy class—whether I get a C or a B doesn’t matter to me, and therefore I don’t desire to get a better grade. The things I want to improve at are generally the things I care about.
So in a way, happiness in any situation really depends on what it is one is accepting, what his or her emotions are towards that thing, and the people he or she is doing it with. In my case, I deeply care about playing hockey; therefore it follows that I will strive to better my position. I also love playing hockey and I enjoy being a part of a team, so it follows that I am able to do these things with happiness in my heart. In the end, I’ve come to realize that it is indeed possible to happily accept your place in the world while simultaneously desiring and working towards bettering your position.