Avoiding depression when you reach the top of your game

This was supposed to be one of the most fantastic nights of my life… but it didn’t feel that way.  

My legs were still exhausted from three days of constant movement on Monday night. My feet were still tender from the bone bruises after 70 hours of running and road marching over mountains and hills throughout Georgia.  My back was on FIRE when I stepped into the shower from the heavy pack that rubbed my flesh raw that weekend.  

You don’t even want to know about the bruises from the Darby Queen obstacle course. -or the weight I lost in one of the most physically grueling competitions on earth.

I had just completed the David L. Grange Best Ranger Competition in April of 1996, and solely by the grace of God and the strength of my partner, Isaac Gmazel, finished in 1st place.  

The award ceremony ended that morning. By the afternoon, all the news interviews were over. Most of the celebrities and VIPs had departed for their next big event, and I was finally back home after months of dedicated training for this competition.

I had spent three years of my life preparing for this moment, but this moment was more significant than the years spent preparing.  I had dreamed of representing my unit during the Best Ranger Competition my entire military career. This should have been the most significant moment of my life… Instead, I was frustrated and thoroughly disappointed.

While interviewing Doctor Jason Cormier for my recent episode of UNBEATABLE, I was reminded of this depression that can come with being at the top of your game. Jason is a guy who has been wildly successful in many different venues of life. He has excelled in college athletics, racing cars, making music, and oh, did I forget to mention he’s also an extremely talented neurosurgeon?  

This guy has known success at the highest levels in many disciplines.  And he mentioned a phenomenon that people who make it to the elite levels like Jason can sometimes experience.  It’s the disappointment or depression that can attack you when you reach the top of your game.  

If it sounds counterintuitive to you that it can be miserable when you finally make it to the top, let me try to explain why, and then give a simple principle to avoid the depression that can accompany making it to the top of your game.

The view isn’t what you expected

Most of us have this drive to reach the top, because we think our problems will be answered when we get there, and all our difficulties will disappear. Anyone who has reached the top of their game will tell you that never happens!

Have you ever wondered why some celebrities or sports stars end their lives at the very height of success? The letdown at the pinnacle of success often comes from building this mental image of how satisfying reaching the top will become. When you don’t experience that kind of satisfaction, it can be frustrating, depressing, and even devastating to some. 

A big letdown

Don’t put too much stock into reaching the top of your game. Success will undoubtedly disappoint if you think it will satisfy you at your most profound levels. Most of us expect to arrive at the pinnacle of success, and from that moment forward, life will be easy.

Unfortunately, your success at work, in sports, or in hobbies won’t make the other life problems go away.

The kitchen garbage doesn’t disappear when you reach the top of the ladder. Jason still has to take the trash out at night even after becoming a skilled neurosurgeon. OK, perhaps he has enough money to pay somebody to take the garbage out. I’m trying to say that the garbage still builds up in the house even after you reach the top of your game.

It’s a simple reminder that your identity should never be tied up in success.  

The thrill of the hunt

There is a thrill in pursuing a worthy goal. Part of the big letdown is achieving a goal you have been pursuing for years or decades. All of the time and energy devoted to honing a skill and getting better at a trade so that you can achieve success and be at the top of your game provides focus in life.  

Jason transitioned from playing college basketball with guys like Shaquille O’Neal to neurosurgery. Few people have the skills to do one of these disciplines, little alone two! Jason is a guy who is highly talented in many areas of life.  

When he reached the limit of his success on the basketball court, he realized that it was time to transition to medicine.

Now, what?!?

The view might not be what you expected when you reach the top of your mountain. Any mountain climber will tell you that the effort is worth the reward when you see the view from the top of the mountain.  

However, every mountain climber will also tell you that once you’re standing on the mountaintop, there’s nowhere else to go but down.

It’s good advice for all of us to remember that once you reach the top of the mountain, you will have to go back down the other side. And maybe that’s a good lesson to remind us not to put too much stock into reaching the pinnacle of success. Yeah, the view is incredible from the top but will also leave you asking, What’s next?!?

Finding the next challenge

Here’s my advice for anybody that has been pursuing a worthy goal: Don’t tie your identity into your success. Yes, it might be nice for your business card to say CEO. Perhaps some temporary joy goes along with a gold medal or a blue ribbon hanging around your neck. As remarkable as those accomplishments are, because they are temporary, they can’t satisfy you forever. 

Don’t miss the opportunity to look around and enjoy the view from the top of the mountain. Take stock of all the hard work and effort you put into accomplishing this impressive feat. Enjoy the fruit of your laborers. However, don’t look to this success to satisfy you at your deepest levels.

Jason learned early on that achievements can never take the place of the reason you were created in the first place.  

Transition from mountain climbing to mountain hopping. If there is the thrill in the chase, then once you reach the top of your mountain, maybe it’s time to start looking for a new mountain to climb. If you find purpose and focus in life by devoting yourself to a challenge, then find a new challenge after you achieve success. 


Read about Jeff’s military career.
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