Do You Suffer from “The Contender Syndrome?”
In aclassic scene from the movie On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando ruminates about what could have been, if life hadn’t taken the turns it did. In this instance, Brando is talking about his dream of being a prize fighter. When he says, “I coulda been a contender…” he’s comparing his actual self to his ideal self. Hence, the Contender Syndrome: when you compare who you are (actual self) with who you’d like to be (ideal self), and you come up short. It’s a sense of not living up to the best you.
This gap between the real and ideal self can be painful. The healing comes from building a bridge between the two. And the foundation of that bridge is the belief that potential is malleable rather than static. Dr. Hazel Markus, a psychologist at Stanford University and expert on possible selves, explains, “People who end up suffering, feeling like they could have been a contender, are those with the idea that talents are pretty much fixed, so they don’t figure out how to get from where they are now to where they want to be. They don’t even really think it’s possible, so they don’t put the work into it.” In other words, recognizing that your potential can be built is essential if you hope to reach it.
You may have the contender syndrome simply because no one really armed you with practical strategies for developing your potential. What separates the victors from the contenders is often nothing more than real, focused work. As Thomas Edison quipped, “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” So, if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and break into a sweat, here are some tips you can use to bridge the gap between who you are and who you want to be:
- Define your dreams. Having a vague, amorphous sense of who you want to be can prevent you from excelling. Ill-defined goals leave you feeling unfulfilled, on a constant search for something more that you can’t quite define. Instead, when you can clearly articulate your goals, you will know that you are on the right track and how to make corrections if you are not.
- Do you want to do the work? Achieving a sense of living up to your potential requires ongoing commitment. Are you willing to continue past disappointments and setbacks? Are you willing to get more training and skills? You have to figure out what goes into achieving your success and then do it. For example, if you want to be a writer, you must also learn how to market yourself.
- Hold onto the vision and let go of the form. You may have an image of yourself as an actress or an athlete. You work hard for many years, but the kind of success you are dreaming of alludes you. Now it’s time to construct a new form of the dream, one that includes aspects of the original dream that excite you. So instead of a Broadway star, you are now experiencing the success of performing for local television; instead of a pro contract, you are now a coach. When you have a dazzling Plan B, you can create the experience of success you deserve. The key is to reapply your strengths, not give up your dream.
If you need further inspiration, check out this video clip about Will Smith, the actor, sharing about his success and work ethic, and the need to “Lay One Brick at a Time.”
Psychology Today, July/August 2010, pp. 72-77.