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The hollow victory and the roots of joy

Tennis history was made at this year’s U.S. Open. But first, a bit about the tournament’s defending champion, Naomi Osaka.

During the third round of the women’s draw against teenager Leylah Fernandez, the four-time Grand Slam singles champion threw her racket multiple times and was issued a warning for launching a ball into the stands outside of match play.

Ms. Osaka’s outbursts shocked many, but for those of us in the executive coaching world, the 23-year-old’s behavior resonated. In times of stress and uncertainty, our clients may engage in similar behavioral extremes. If left unchecked, their actions can lead to deep dissatisfaction and career derailment.

After the match, Ms. Osaka spoke about her challenges with expectation as well as her relationship with tennis. “Recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal,” she said. Success and happiness, uncoupled.

I call this predicament the “hollow victory.”

The Hollow Victory

Marcelo Bielsa, legendary manager of Leeds United Football Club (soccer to my North American friends!), says the hollow victory occurs when, “The joy that comes with winning lasts about five minutes and what is left is a gaping void and a loneliness that is hard to describe.”

A client of mine hit the nail on the head when she told me, “Once I have completed a major accomplishment at work or in my personal life, my next thought is, ‘Now what?’”

It’s a familiar story. In a world that glorifies, incentivizes, recognizes and rewards high levels of accomplishment through doing, little attention is given to one’s being.

Compare and contrast Ms. Osaka with Emma Raducanu’s magical story. The 18-year-old battled her way through the pre-tournament qualifier phase into the main event. Initially, she’d booked her tickets home to England for halfway through the tournament based on a minimum amount of expectation. But just over two weeks later, Ms. Raducanu had won the entire tournament and her adventure had become legend. “The Fairytale of New York.”

I was fortunate enough to witness her third round and semi-final matches in person, and I can attest that Ms. Raducanu played with a combination of fearlessness, aggression and freedom underpinned by joy. Joy!

The Roots of Joy

Executives, athletes, musicians, artists, nurses, firefighters, community leaders — every one of us can share the same roots of joy in our professional and personal lives if they are founded on:

A Sense of Self

  • How we anchor ourselves through values and experiences, preferences and predispositions

  • The ability to love and be loved

  • The ability to inspire and be inspired

A Sense of Belonging

  • Having friends, family and close colleagues who love and celebrate us for who we are (being) not what we have done (doing)

A Sense of Meaning

  • Having a clear set of principles that guide and provide meaning to our daily actions

  • These values may be social, religious, political, personal, ideological, philosophical or a blend

A Sense of Purpose

  • The ability to focus and connect our work to something bigger than ourselves

  • The pathway from “success” to “significance” typically happens through service. When individuals achieve success without understanding how to — or having the tools to — move to the next level, they may feel a deep sense of loss and disorientation.

A Sense of Perspective

  • The ability to put present challenges into a historical context

  • Comparison and expectation exist in the space

  • Comparison is the thief of joy. Expectation is the root of all unhappiness. Buddha and Shakespeare said the same thing, 2,000 years apart!

A Sense of Humor

  • Not taking ourselves too seriously

  • Seeing the humor in difficult times

Two More Wins for the History Books

In the shadow of Novak Djokovic, two other tennis players were also chasing a 2021 Golden Slam (Four Majors and Olympic Gold). While Mr. Djokovic suffered a dramatic three-set loss in the finals, both Australia’s Dylan Alcott and Holland’s Diede de Groot accomplished it without much fanfare.

“I can’t believe I just won the Golden Slam!” Alcott said. “I used to hate myself so much. I hated my disability… I didn’t even want to be here anymore. I found tennis and it changed, and saved, my life.”

Alcott. Raducanu. Their ability to express talent at the highest level came from their ability to feel — really feel — joy.

Next time you find yourself with a hollow feeling, asking, “Now what?,” dig deep. Discover the roots of your joy — in your senses of self, belonging, meaning, purpose, perspective and humor — and grow them into your own sustainable blend of success and happiness. Then, when the time is ripe, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting ( A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.

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