A mercantile goal is one that is based on trading up. You want to progress from where you are now to a place that is higher, for whatever reason, and there is a tangible payoff when you arrive. In fencing, some examples of mercantile goals would include getting into college, earning a rating, qualifying for a specific competition, etc.
This is a phenomenon that we see in sports so clearly, but also that exists in every aspect of life. You can do things for the purpose of a payoff, or you can do things because you enjoy the process and the growth that you get in doing it. The satisfaction when it is about your own growth is deeper and more fulfilling.
The temptation to quit
If you only have a mercantile goal, then when conditions change in the world and that goal is no longer viable, you quit.
2020 was a great example of this. Juniors and seniors this year have a more difficult path in getting to competitions and performing for the result that they were hanging their hat on. Now that those goals are not achievable, they lose motivation and drop out of fencing. Why would you keep training if you cannot achieve the goal in the timeframe that you expected?
This goes for other things too. For fencers who were ultra focused on getting to Fencing Summer Nationals, well that goal is not a reasonable one anymore. For 2020, that competition was totally canceled and it is not guaranteed that it will be back for 2021. If that one competition was keeping you on task for your fencing training then you no longer have a reason to stay on task.
It’s not just in fencing that we see this. It is the same in life too. If your drive to do something is only tied to things that are measured by other people, then external changes will always affect what you are driven to do. A job that you have dreamed of might go to someone who has an edge on you. A house that you really want to buy might slip through your fingers when someone has a better offer. If you have built your identity around those outcomes, then you will be downhearted and disappointed. This leads to a lack of consistency in life and the inability to get over gaps in motivation that are simply a reality. Motivation has to come from other than outside sources.
Shift to things in your control
Think about it, think about your goals. It’s not sure that you will be able to achieve any success if your goal is not self improvement and self realization but something mercantile such as getting into a certain college or winning a certain competition.
If your top reason is self improvement or self realization, then you can get results every time because those are outcomes that you have control over. If the goal is mercantile, then you might not get any results as the situation you are in might change, as in a college fencing program that gets cut or an injury, or it might be something that is out of your control, such as this year’s pandemic.
A fencer can control whether or not they show up to practice. They can control how many hours they put into analyzing their strategy. They can control their diet, their exercise, their investment with their coach, and their focus during training. They can control whether they put their love of doing the sport above their love of achieving in the sport. Those are two importantly distinct things!
Achievement is fulfilling only because it is an acknowledgement of the hard work that we put into training, not because it itself is fulfilling. Some might argue with that, but when we talk to elite athletes who win at high levels like the Olympics, they universally say that the outcome is only one small part of what drives them. They have to love the work, because Olympic gold is not guaranteed for anyone. If you miss it, for whatever reason, then your life has to have some other kind of purpose or else you will be empty when the goal is passed without achieving it. You might even be empty if you are lucky enough to achieve it, because especially at that high level, well what is next? When your goals have to do with you, there is always something waiting for you to do when you have achieved even the highest dreams.
Why am I fencing?
If you look back at your life and analyze the goals that you had way back when, you’ll see that you missed a lot of opportunities as well as a lot of joy in life because you chased things for the wrong reasons. It is a tough realization to come to, and it’s one that many people have had to face in a difficult way after years of looking for things in places that they could never find them.
There are some fencers, even very talented ones, that suddenly faced the new pandemic reality with no competitions, an unclear start of the season, an unclear path to college recruitment, and they started to think “Why am I fencing?”
For most people, the answer to this question should be straightforward – “I fence because I love it!” If you do something because you love it, because you feel that it is a path to your becoming a better person and a better athlete, then you can sustain it. If you are looking towards acquiring a new skill, pushing your own boundaries and limitations and to get out of your comfort zone, then those things can drive you no matter what else happens. If you are challenging yourself to set a goal and pursue it relentlessly, then you will always enrich yourself no matter the outcome. Finding out the core things that are driving your how to set a goal and relentlessly pursue it, that’s how you enrich yourself.
Only now, when I am old enough to look back at my childhood with a critical and realistic eye, do I realize how many great opportunities I missed and how many great skills I didn’t acquire because I was fixated on mercantile goals back then. I could have gotten a lot more out of my goals if I had looked for internal growth in many of the areas that I pursued relentlessly for payoffs that were, in truth, out of my control. I wish I had known better. With time, you see the difference between those things you learned or did which you loved and which made you happy, versus the things you did out of a sense of obligation or compulsion for acquiring some feather in your cap.
Perhaps these are the kinds of lessons that we can only come to learn when with time and perspective. I don’t think so though. I think that learning to differentiate between goals that are about outside praise rather than inside development is a skill that we can teach young people. It’s definitely one that we can learn as adults, because it’s never too late to understand who we are and find fulfillment in chasing our dreams.