July 14, 2014

How do you view sporting success?

Do you gauge it by rewards or in terms of the experiences accumulated on the way?

One of the rare pleasures of playing sport is deep concentration: back in that zone, the number of empty seats becomes an irrelevance © Getty Images

A chance conversation about motivation leads me to reflect on the nature of ambition. What is ambition, properly understood? Must it mean climbing the ladder to the top? Or is it the feeling that your life has a sense of purpose and meaning, even during those days that end in disappointment?

The initial question put to me was simple "How do you stay motivated in county cricket, even if you never get back in contention for the Test team?" In trying to provide an answer, I ended up trying to work out what matters - in cricket, in writing, or in any career.

In one respect I was exactly the right person to ask. Not because I always succeeded but because I often failed. Only now, six years after admitting defeat, do I think I am ready explicitly to analyse why. Between being dropped by England (aged 26) and retiring from cricket (at 31), I averaged about 45 in first-class cricket. It's not phoney modesty when I confess that isn't good enough. In your late 20s, as a mature batsman who knows his game, secure in your place and comfortable in your environment, you ought to average more like 55 or 60.

As Michael Vaughan often correctly points out, the biggest difference between Test and first-class cricket is not the balls that are bowled at you but the environment in which the match is played. International cricket has a sense of event - crowd, media, cameras and constant scrutiny - that county cricket often lacks. The mood of a Test match is an intoxicating experience. When all that is suddenly withdrawn, the short-term danger is feeling that other cricket - the cricket that got you there in the first place - is somehow unexciting. This is obviously a huge error, but an understandable one.

When a player is trying to break into international cricket, a county match - an essential step on a lifelong journey - is filled with hope and energy. After he has been dropped, the same county ground can feel lifeless and depressing. You can catch yourself making a fatal miscalculation: I've performed so often in this environment that I can turn it on again when it really matters.

But, sadly, form does not take orders from your surly ego. How quickly you forget that you did not coast to success in the first place, but committed to it wholeheartedly. In failing to do the same now, you are effectively asking yourself to play better than ever while kicking away the foundations.

From the vantage point of retirement, you realise that the most enviable careers are not always the most successful in objective terms

There is, however, a healthier way of looking at a career (any career). Instead of seeing it as only a ladder that must be climbed, and resenting any reversals along the way, your career can be viewed as a sphere of experience. After all, life is really an accumulated store of experiences. And today - this ground, this match, this innings - offers the only experience available to us. We cannot play in matches taking place on other grounds, however much we want to.

Instead of seeing success only as an outcome - wearing a particular shirt, or playing in front of a certain number of spectators - success can be recast as a search for meaningful experience. How good can I be? How much can I give of myself? Can I enjoy the fact of caring deeply, even when it leads to disappointment? How unsparing can I be in the expectations I place on myself?

Let me use an analogy from my life now, as a writer. I write both books and articles (for different publications and outlets), so my work is published and distributed in a wide range of different formats. Sometimes the life of writer seems glamorous (a shiny new book or a cover story for a magazine), other times it all feels very workaday. But the experience that matters, writing the words that I feel to be true, with the most clarity and honesty I can manage, remains entirely unchanged. It is my decision. I can choose to focus on the essence of the experience (the words) or the surface effects (the rewards).

So it is with cricketers and their stage. Instead of expecting the by-products to provide meaning, we can look for it in the experience itself. Whatever the level of the match, your job is the same: to respond to the ball. The method, too, remains unchanged: to achieve the right mixture of readiness and yet relaxation, the balance of hunger and indifference, the optimal blend of narrow focus and yet openness to the day, the middle ground between asserting conscious will power and yet allowing it to happen.

Get into that space and you will rediscover the primacy of experience and the insignificance of surface effects. One of the rare pleasures of playing sport is deep concentration: back in that zone, the number of empty seats becomes an irrelevance. From the vantage point of retirement, you realise that the most enviable careers are not always the most successful in objective terms.

A career that is fatally hitched to external validation is doomed to disappointment: there will always be someone better than you, performing on a bigger stage, garnering greater reviews. But if they are looking over their shoulder, wondering if the world could give them still more prizes, while you are absorbed entirely in today's experience, then tell me: who is the more successful man?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter