June 3, 2021

The Difference between “Deep” & “Shallow” Winning—& how to finally begin to Feel Enough.


A few weeks ago, an Instagram post by Dr. Brené Brown popped up on my feed.

It was a poster on “shallow winning,” a concept formulated by Dr. Pippa Grange, a British sports psychologist.

In a nutshell, shallow winning is doing everything we can to win as a means to avoid feeling bad, “less than,” and not enough. It’s a motivation to win based on scarcity and comparison.

It really struck me because I have done a lot of shallow winning (or at least, trying to win) in my life. But no one had previously used such clear words to describe what I had been feeling for a long time.

You see, “winning” (whatever that means) is presented to us as the alpha and omega of life, since early childhood. Our school education is based on marks and comparison. We are taught competition since we are maybe six or seven years old. Shallow winning is, alas, the most advertised type of victory. And I learned it so well.

The weird thing about “winning” is that it’s almost presented as a commodity, something you can obtain if you control yourself in a certain way: work harder! Push through! Higher! Faster! Stronger!

Nothing in all that is organic, naturally paced, or at ease.

Winning is rarely explained as the result of a journey, a transformation, a kind of harmonious outcome that blooms from a place of alignment and feeling.

If we compared it to agriculture, shallow winning would be intensive farming with a lot of chemicals, in a greenhouse, and without any kind of seasonality or attention to climate. It would be like growing tomatoes in Norway. All that matters is getting there—at all costs or almost.

The big problem is that it makes no sense.

This kind of winning doesn’t quench our thirst for security. It doesn’t quell our anxiety. It never feels like enough. Victories are short-lived. They are swift, fleeting, intoxicating gulps of a potent drink whose effects evaporate within moments, leaving us as empty as we were before drinking.

No amount of striving and effort can get us “there” because, in shallow winning, we never arrive anywhere. We are always thinking about the next thing, the next step, the next challenge.

Pippa Grange knows it well. One of her jobs was to help the Australian Olympic swimming team recover after they lost the games. When winning is an expectation as if you were a vending machine, there is a problem in the whole system, the whole mindset, and we pay for the damage.

When I was a child, and then a young adult in her studies, I was good. Effort was natural to me. I didn’t even notice I was pushing myself. I had an excellent memory, and I easily identified the criteria that were valued by the teachers. “Winning” was easy for me.

Fortunately (yes, the irony is deliberate), things changed when I landed on the job market. My first employed job didn’t fit me, I was depressed, my capacities weren’t put to use, people didn’t listen to my opinion. Shallow winning was not available to me at all.

Another area of my life where I had zero facility was sports. In 2009, I joined a HEMA club. HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts; you could call that historical fencing. It’s a martial sport where you study and practice combat from ancient treatises with secured simulators, like longswords with flexible blades, synthetic daggers, and suchlike.

It’s a fun sport, but I always kinda sucked at it. It made me absolutely crazy. I didn’t understand why I tired so fast, why my body ached all over, why I was so overwhelmed with combat dynamics. It seemed like I wasn’t made for it, but for a strange reason, I carried on, despite rather bad results.

My difficulties at fencing, combined with my unfathomable disappointment at my professional life (which led me to depression, but that’s another story) were, honestly, an incredibly painful experience. But I think it saved my sanity.

Because it taught me that you can’t just coerce yourself into winning. You can throw a tantrum, scream, go mad, roll on the floor—it won’t make it happen. “Trying hard” is not enough, contrary to what we hear all the time. And that’s maybe the most important thing I learned in all my life.

After 10 years of feeling swamped and behind, and after reading a few books by F Tosha Silver, I slowly started realizing that when “winning” is that important to us, it means scarcity is ruling our life.

It means that every time we don’t win, we feel like crap (excuse my French).

What happens concretely is that our mindset and nervous system are full of mines, ready to explode at each failure or disappointment, causing us harm in the form of suffering.

This whole mindset around winning can become rampant: getting a compliment is a win. Cooking a good (and Instagrammable) meal is a win. Reading a certain number of books, doing a certain number of push-ups every day, mastering a certain number of fencing techniques, of recipes, of yoga postures is a win. Our life can become a crazy box-ticking frenzy if we don’t pay attention. We no longer touch the ground, inflated like hot-air balloons.

The very exhaustion and frustration of it were the miraculous medicine I needed to correct my course and start looking for something else.

Healing from a shallow winning habit is exactly like quitting drugs. Actually, shallow winning is an addiction. Our nervous system has painstakingly learned that we are not okay without the drug. Well, our first job is to teach it to feel its feelings during the withdrawal.

When the part of us that is doing the feeling realizes that it isn’t the feeling itself, but rather the instrument on which the feeling’s music is played, something deeper takes hold. As uncomfortable (or frankly maddening) it can be, the vacuum created by the absence of winning can, at last, be filled by something that is really ours.

We have to be hollowed out to truly fill our cup. It’s not a five-step process where our mind has control over everything. It’s an organic transformation happening through us, not to us. We are both the grape juice, the yeast, and the wine in the making. Who knows exactly on which day we will be fully vinified, ready to be drunk in a gorgeous glass?

It depends on so many things. The wine-grower tends to their barrels with care and dedication. They do things by instinct, tasting the wine, looking at its color, smelling it. And one day, they know it’s ready.

This is deep winning.

It gives us a sense of joy that is more linked to the process than the result. Each little step is a finish line in itself. Each small move is important and graceful. Each sip is savored with reckless abandon. There is no comparison with others or a so-called model. The goal is not to “get there”—because we are already there. The experience is all there is with a “positive” or “negative” outcome. Even struggle is embraced.

Deep winning doesn’t make us feel worthier, special, or more valuable because it’s a kind of victory that only happens in a system where our value doesn’t hinge on our achievements.

In the journey to deep winning, there is so much more than just “manifesting” things. We are offered a radical transformation.

The hot-air balloon can finally land and grow roots.


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