In this classic 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:
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.