SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games - Jane McGonigal (2015)

Part 2. How to Be Gameful

Chapter 11. Epic Wins

How to Be Gameful Rule 7

Go for an epic win—an awe-inspiring outcome that helps you be more motivated and less afraid of failure.

An epic win is a special kind of goal. It’s designed to be more like game goals than ordinary self-improvement goals.

Here are some examples of epic wins from successful SuperBetter players:

·                Go twenty-four hours without being bored. (Challenge: depression)

·                Sleep one night without my iPod. (Challenge: insomnia)

·                Keep up with my husband on a walk around the lake. (Challenge: getting in shape)

·                Dance in public. (Challenge: social anxiety, low self-esteem)

·                Go one week without using my inhaler. (Challenge: asthma)

·                Meditate for thirty minutes in a row. (Challenge: anxiety)

·                Take my kids to the movies—and be able to sit with them the entire time. (Challenge: back pain)

·                Fix up three broken bikes from the thrift shop and donate them back, ready to ride. (Challenge: rehabilitating from knee surgery after a bike accident)

·                Complete a twenty-mile fundraising walk. (Challenge: find a new, more fulfilling job)

These goals—like the goals of all good games, from golf to sudoku to Super Mario—have four things in common: they’re realistic, challenging, energizing, and forgiving.

A gameful goal is realistic if you have reason to believe you’ll successfully achieve it if you make your best effort. After all, games are designed to be winnable.

A gameful goal is challenging if, in order to achieve it, you have to learn a new skill or draw on strengths like creativity, cleverness, and grit. A goal without an interesting challenge is just work!

A gameful goal is energizing if just thinking about it fires you up. You know you’ll feel fantastic if you achieve it. Game goals are usually quite energizing—which is why, whether it’s a sport or a video game, players often throw their arms up in the air and roar with pride after they achieve a victory.

Most important, a gameful goal is forgiving. If you don’t achieve success on your first try, all is not lost. Nothing terrible will happen to you or others. In fact, even if you fail, something good will happen—you’ll learn strategies and ideas for doing better on your next attempt or on your next goal.

Why aim for an epic win? When you’re going through a difficult change or a tough life challenge, it’s important to be able to find opportunities for success and breakthroughs.

Researchers call this powerful skill positive reappraisal, or benefit finding.1 It means being aware of good outcomes that can come even from stress, trauma, or a major life change. Positive reappraisal is a powerful source of mental, emotional, social, and physical resilience: it lowers stress hormones, improves mood, leads to greater relationship satisfaction, and boosts immune function.2 But you don’t develop it by chance. The best way to get good at positive reappraisal is to set yourself up for regular epic wins or positive breakthroughs.

As the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi famously said: “Winning isn’t everything. But making the effort to win is.”*

Your epic wins may seem minor to someone else. They probably won’t be breaking news or Nobel Prize–worthy. But the key to a good epic win is that it feels like a huge leap forward to you, while still being totally achievable. As one player, Sam, put it after he achieved his first epic win:

Going without my inhaler for six days maybe sounds like no big deal. But when I chose my epic win, I thought it was a real long shot. I accomplished it quicker than I thought was possible. Six days I have been free of the asthma pump! After six months of wheezing, coughing and all kinds of medications, I am breathing just fine on my own. Feel like I do have some power over my health, after all.

As Sam discovered, one of the key benefits of an epic win is that it can change what you think you’re capable of. It can reveal that you have more control over your life than you’d thought. And once you know that, you can aim for more ambitious epic wins.

Designing gameful goals for yourself is a skill, one you’ll get better at with practice. This chapter will teach you the techniques of gameful goal setting and positive reappraisal—and help you plan your own exhilarating course of epic wins for the future.

Let’s start by talking about the simplest version of an epic win: the measurable win.

measurable win is a very clear goal, with progress you can objectively track and an obvious way to know when you’ve achieved it. Here are some examples:

·                Get eight hours of sleep every night for one week.

·                Lose five pounds.

·                Put $250 in savings this month toward a dream trip.

·                Go twenty-four hours without needing pain medication.

·                Send a thank-you message to a different friend every day for twenty-one days.

·                Finish a 5K charity run.

·                At a networking event, introduce yourself to ten people.

As you can see, every measurable win has a number involved. There’s no room for error or subjectivity—you either achieve it or you don’t.

By way of contrast, here are some nonmeasurable versions of the same goals that would make for absolutely terrible epic wins: Get more sleep. Lose weight. Save money. Be less dependent on pain medication. Feel more gratitude. Start a running routine. Be more confident in social settings.

All these goals are worthy endeavors! But they are basically useless when it comes to being gameful, because they establish no clear win condition. How will you know for sure when you’ve achieved one? You won’t—not unless you have a way to measure it!

It’s quite easy to create a measurable win for yourself. Think of a habit or activity you’d like to do often, an ability you’d like to improve, or a milestone you’d like to reach. Then pick a target number that feels interesting to you—interesting, because it’s challenging, and because you’re not 100 percent sure you can do it. Then create a goal around that number.

Remember, it’s essential, for an epic win, that you not be completely confident that you can achieve this goal. If you are 100 percent confident, then it’s probably a quest and not an epic win. Quests are about making steady progress. An epic win should feel like a major breakthrough—like you’ve just found out something new and awesome about yourself when you achieve it.

Measurable wins are the building blocks of getting superbetter, especially in the early days. They help you tackle your biggest challenges and take purposeful strides toward your most important goals. Just be sure to start small—the smallest leap you can make without being 100 percent sure you can do it. Because you’re going for breakthroughs, you may have to try more than once. This is perfectly normal—and perfectly gameful. (Remember, video games are designed to help players get better by continually requiring them to aim for goals just beyond their current ability—goals they are almost never expected to achieve on the first try.)

Whenever you achieve a win, set your eyes on a bigger one. Before you know it, you’ll be achieving wins that truly change your perception of what you’re capable of.

Let’s brainstorm some possible measurable wins right now—with a quest.

 QUEST 41: Plan a Measurable Win

A measurable win is a great way to stretch your limits and inspire extra effort. What will your first measurable win be?

Here are some brainstorming questions to inspire you:

·   What would you feel really proud to do for seven days in a row?

·   What do you want to go an entire twenty-four hours without doing?

·   What’s a “personal best” record you could aspire to set? In other words, what’s the “most” you’ve ever done something? Can you beat that number?

·   If you’re working toward a big milestone—an amount of money you want to save, a number of pounds of muscle you want to gain, a word count for a book you want to write—what mini-milestone could you get to in the next thirty days?

·   What number just feels epic to you? For example: Read 1,001 stories to my kids. Walk 500 miles. Take 365 creative self-portraits. Just pick a number that feels huge and worth celebrating—then challenge yourself to get there. (Just be sure if you pick a truly epic number that you have an easy way to tally! I prefer to use a tiny notebook or a sheet of paper taped to the wall.)

Why it works: The key to the power of measurable wins is that they are goals you choose for yourself, based on the skills, abilities, and habits you want to develop. Research shows that choosing your own goals leads to better health and happiness, faster. In fact, every time you achieve a goal of your own choosing, you improve your odds of achieving the next goal. (Even if the next goal is much more ambitious!) Scientists call this the upward spiral of positive outcomes—and it happens only when you are in charge of the goals you pursue.3

What to do: List at least one measurable win for yourself here.


You’re not committing to any epic wins yet—so feel free to give yourself a few options to choose from.

Tip: Remember, it’s not a measurable quest if it doesn’t have a number in it!

Not all triumphs come with numbers attached. Let’s talk about another popular type of epic win: the breakthrough moment.

breakthrough moment is a major, positive turning point in your efforts to get superbetter. It’s an event you can aspire to and plan to do that will show off your strength and resilience. It can also be a way to demonstrate and celebrate your commitment to your goals.

In Chapter 9, you read about Alex Goldman’s epic win, getting back on his bicycle to ride for the first time, six months after he was hit by a car while riding. This is the perfect example of a breakthrough moment. Alex not only had to summon up his courage to ride again; he also had to complete enough physical rehabilitation to be able to ride the three-mile loop. His Prospect Park ride was both a physical and a mental breakthrough.

Sometimes a breakthrough moment will happen when you least expect it, and that doesn’t make it any less worth celebrating. But actively planning for and vividly imagining your next breakthrough moment—just as Alex did, preparing for and envisioning his Prospect Park ride over a six-week period—has two major advantages.

First, when you purposefully set out to achieve a breakthrough moment, you’ll reflect on your own strengths, values, and goals as you decide what you want your moment to be. This reflection can lead to important self-insight. What counts as success to you? Second, keeping a breakthrough moment firmly in mind can become a powerful source of motivation, as you visualize your future success and what it will feel like to achieve it.

Here are some additional examples of planned breakthrough moments, in the words of the SuperBetter players who achieved them:

“I want to be self-employed, but I need to save more money and make more contacts before I can quit my current job. My first epic win was to put myself out there with my own official website. I’ve let the world know who I am and what my talents are.” —Darren, thirty-eight, whose challenge is to work for himself

“One of my allies suggested that my first epic win should be to un-friend my ex-girlfriend on Facebook and delete her as a contact on my phone. Honestly, I was shaking while I did it. But now it’s like two tons of weight have been lifted off my shoulders.” —J.T., twenty-five, whose challenge is getting over his ex

“As planned, I went to Cheesecake Factory and did not order cheesecake (or any dessert for that matter). I feel like I’ve earned a black belt in willpower.” —Melissa, forty-two, whose challenge is getting healthy and feeling beautiful

Some breakthroughs are bigger than others. Some take weeks of effort to achieve, while others happen in an instant. But they all represent a kind of personal leveling-up in real life. Each breakthrough is a celebration of strength and shows a commitment to positive transformation.

What will your next breakthrough moment look like? Try this next quest to find out.

 QUEST 42: Look for a Breakthrough Moment

A breakthrough moment is a positive turning point in your SuperBetter journey. Once you achieve it, you can be confident that you’re making real progress and developing powerful new strengths.

Here are some brainstorming questions to guide you:

·   What big step could you take in the next week that would signify a major commitment to your goals?

·   What is one thing that you’ve been unable to do due to injury, illness, or extreme stress that you would like to be able to do again soon? Could doing it for the first time again be a breakthrough moment?

·   What’s something that scares you but that you could reasonably do in the next thirty days?

·   How could you show off a new skill or strength you’ve been developing—in public, or to friends and family?

·   What have you been procrastinating about, or avoiding doing, that you really want to get done once and for all?

·   What good news would you want to yell from a mountaintop?

·   Could you do something to honor, remember, or commemorate an important event in your past, or a person who influenced your decision to get superbetter?

·   Can you think of any other major leveling-up moment for you in real life? What could you accomplish in the next ninety days that would tell the world (or even just yourself), I am so much stronger than you had any idea!

Why it works: The ability to identify turning points in your own life’s narrative is a key predictor of post-ecstatic or post-traumatic growth.4 Every breakthrough moment, or turning point, you achieve helps you tell a new story about yourself and the powerful strengths you’re discovering.

What to do: List at least one potential breakthrough moment for yourself here.


Tip: You’re not committing to any epic wins yet—so feel free to give yourself more than one option to choose from.

A SuperBetter Story: The One Who Didn’t Quit

“I hardly recognize myself. And that’s a good thing.” Those were the first words Meg shared with her allies two years ago, after achieving her breakthrough moment: finishing a twenty-mile fund-raising walk to help end hunger.

At the time Meg was twenty-six, living in a suburb of Boston and working for a major corporation whose values did not reflect her own. “It was a really difficult time for me,” she told me recently, looking back on the experience. “I hated my job, and I saw little hope of anything in the future. So I took the chance to sign up for SuperBetter.”

At first, Meg was unsure what to tackle as an epic win. But when a coworker told her about an upcoming charity walk, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a step in the right direction. She might not feel that her employer was a force for good, but she could do something individually to make the world a better place.

Before the charity walk, Meg had only ever walked as far as six miles. “My goal was to get as far as possible before my legs simply gave up and detached themselves from my body,” Meg said. “I figured on that happening at roughly Mile 10.”

She started the walk on a small team, made up of coworkers and acquaintances, all cheering each other on. At Mile 10 most of them called it a day. But Meg wanted to keep pushing. At Mile 12 her final remaining teammate decided to go home. “It was the most demoralizing moment of the entire day,” she said.

But she decided to keep walking—despite a calf cramp, a sore knee, and blisters forming on her feet. “By Mile 18, the aches in my body were breathtaking,” she recalled. “I was sunburned and exhausted to the point of tears.” She still can’t say for sure what compelled her to keep going and to push through the pain. Part of it was wanting to do as much as she could for a good cause. Part of it was a growing curiosity. Had she completely underestimated what she was capable of?

Despite her pain and exhaustion, she eventually crossed the finish line onto the Boston Common, hobbling and elated. “I distinctly recall shrieking, through my tears, ‘I did it! I walked twenty miles! I [effing] did it!!’”

“Even now I remember every sympathetic and amazed expression I encountered at work the next day. No one, including myself, seemed to believe that I had managed to make it. That I was the one who went the distance, who didn’t quit.”

Four months later Meg wrote down her reflections about the epic win that she achieved, despite not truly believing it was possible.

“Every ache in my body that day filled me with fiery joy. A twenty-mile walk? I did it because I could. And no one can take that away from me. Now when my old inadequacies rear their heads, I find myself hitting back rather than shrinking from my fears. I’m going to look silly, and people are going to laugh at me, the negative thoughts come. Then my victory crows, This?! This is a body that has walked twenty miles! Let them look!

“I’m still overweight, out of shape, asthmatic, and given to bouts of lethargy, but I no longer care so much about how I measure up in comparison to other people on the street. The walk has devoured my doubts. Now I’m likely to look at a challenge, whether physical or emotional, and decide that I have the endurance, determination, and motivation to succeed.

“Since the walk, life has brought its usual bevy of strife and disappointment. The difference now is that when I falter and sulk and feel gloomy, I can look up at my bedroom wall to my framed Walk for Hunger completion certificate—and remember that I can, in fact, do the impossible.”

Meg still comes alive when she talks about that day. “I am not exaggerating when I say that walking twenty miles and achieving that epic win changed my life,” she told me more than two years after the charity walk. “My entire self-concept had to be rewritten to acknowledge that I could meet that kind of challenge.”

She used that momentum to make other changes in her life, including finding her way into a career where she can be a force for good not just one day but every single day: “The Walk for Hunger fed my desire to do more good, to participate in my community.” Today she works in Boston at a job she is extremely proud of: as a department coordinator in the health care oversight field, where she ensures that people get the health care they need, when they need it most. “I’m loving every minute of it,” she said.

Although Meg doesn’t battle the same bad guys she used to, she has made her two favorite SuperBetter quests a part of her regular routine. “I still set myself up weekly for a Do something that scares you quest, and I complete a Take pride in something about yourself quest every single day,” she told me. She keeps up these gameful habits because you never know when life will throw an unexpected obstacle your way. “I will always be the superbetter version of myself,” she said, “no matter what obstacles come.”

Measurable wins and breakthrough moments help you tackle your challenge directly. But there’s one more way you can go for an epic win—sideways.

For the past three years players have been reporting their epic wins via SuperBetter online. My analysis shows that roughly one in four have been “sneak-up sideways” wins. This term is inspired by John Stuart Mill, an early nineteenth-century British philosopher, who once said, “Happiness should be approached sideways, like a crab.”

In other words, instead of trying to be happier, aim for more concrete goals, like learning something new, helping others, or using your creative talents to make something. Happiness is more likely to be created as a by-product of these meaningful goals than by trying to be happier.

Likewise, when it comes to getting superbetter, it sometimes helps to take a sideways approach. Instead of trying to solve your problems directly, you can focus on a goal that is tangential or even (seemingly) unrelated to your primary challenge. The nonprofit organization Soldiers to Summits, for example, takes U.S. soldiers and veterans on expeditions to some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. Many of the trips are designed to take a sideways approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Many participants find tackling the gameful goal of summiting a mountain more energizing and easier to measure than trying to heal from PTSD. (Helpfully, making a difficult mountain climb is also a known path to post-ecstatic growth—which would ultimately help combat symptoms of PTSD.)

Laura, thirty-three, started playing SuperBetter while pregnant. “I’m getting SuperBetter because my second baby is due any day now,” she wrote at the time, “and as all parents know, the first three months or so are pretty rough. I figure something that encourages me to take care of myself is a good thing.”

But Laura struggled to find an epic win that felt both realistic and inspiring. “Make it through the next three months is going to happen whether I get stronger or not, since I can’t stop the flow of time. Avoid depression seems unrealistic, since I have a history of depression, and it sometimes hits despite my best efforts. Have a happy family is way too dependent on factors outside my control. As you can see, I just can’t find an epic win that I like!”

Laura turned to her allies for ideas and wound up adopting an unlikely goal for someone whose challenge was to make more time for her own needs. Her epic win: Help other new moms. More precisely, she decided to create a power pack, a customized set of power-ups, bad guys, and quests, that she could share with other new parents.

Whenever Laura found a power-up that worked well for her, spotted a particularly tricky bad guy, or completed a satisfying quest, she would add it to the power pack. Eventually she published her pack online, with power-ups like “Sunlight! Get outside, even just by sitting on your front steps for a few minutes” and quests like “I feel pretty: take time to do one thing that makes you feel pretty today. Put up your hair, put on earrings, or just put on a pretty lip gloss. It doesn’t matter if nobody will see it. You know you’re beautiful!”

Afterward Laura reflected, “This was the perfect epic win for me. As a stay-at-home mother, you don’t get much sleep, your brain is awash with hormones, you don’t get much adult interaction, and to top it all off there aren’t any concrete goals or projects to work toward. Creating my own power pack gave me a sense of daily purpose and progress. And it felt meaningful, because I knew it would help others.”

Laura’s story is the perfect illustration of how personal well-being is sometimes better achieved by finding a slightly higher purpose. Your purpose doesn’t have to be world-changing or Nobel Prize–worthy! Turning your focus outward even a little bit can help you tap into a more authentic motivation and achieve something that brings a powerful sense of pride. In short, your perfect epic win may not be something that you do for yourself—it may be something you do for others.

Consider the experience of Dylan, forty-one, who had lots of goals when he started getting superbetter: eat more healthfully, get fit, lose weight. There were plenty of obvious measurable wins that Dylan could have chosen related to these goals, but he was tired of counting calories and clocking workouts. So after a few weeks, he decided to reframe his challenge with a very creative twist. “I’m getting SuperBetter so I can be a better human to my dog,” he announced. He felt that getting off the couch, having more energy, and being physically fit would ultimately benefit not just him but also his six-year-old mutt, Cody, who loved long walks and always wanted to play.

But how was he to measure success in making his dog happier? An ally on an online discussion forum inspired him with the following idea: celebrate more frequent dog birthdays. The ally wrote: “My own beloved dog died in May, and it didn’t occur to me until she was dying that I should have given her more birthdays. Since a dog’s year is one-seventh of ours, that means they should have a birthday once every fifty-two days. A dog birthday is a day in which you do all the things that dogs love: walks, throwing sticks, playing. It’s also, like any birthday, a way of facing mortality, which means cherishing what we have when we have it.”

And just like that, Dylan knew what his first epic win would be: to celebrate a year’s worth of dog birthdays with Cody, one every fifty-two days, full of long walks and epic play sessions. “The weight off my mind is incredible,” he said after picking the new win. “I feel like I can be successful now, instead of feeling like a failure that the progress is so slow.”

Dylan’s choice reveals one of the main benefits of sneaking up sideways on your win: a sideways goal is often more forgiving. Like many people who struggle to achieve health goals, Dylan was used to beating himself up for not reaching his quickly. Every setback became a reason to doubt himself more. Focusing on something so joyful and not directly related to his health challenges helped him drop the baggage of self-doubt and negative thinking—which also allowed him, slowly but surely, to drop some extra weight. Crucially, what Dylan celebrated as an epic win wasn’t the thirty pounds that he ultimately lost. It was the seventh dog-birthday that marked his true moment of triumph.

Both Laura and Dylan benefited from pursuing epic wins that weren’t obvious at the outset.

Should you consider going this counterintuitive route? Here are some of the most common obstacles that players face when trying to pick an epic win. If you’re hitting any of these roadblocks when you try to brainstorm a win, sneaking up sideways may be right for you.

·                Your goal doesn’t inspire you. “I decided my first epic win would be to exercise five times a week for an entire month. But I’m just not excited about it. It feels like something I should do, not something I want to do.”

·                Achieving your goal depends on too many factors not in your control. “I’d like to say my epic win would be to find a loving partner and start a family. But I know that’s not really in my control. I can’t make someone magically appear and fall in love with me. So what can I do to win in the meantime?”

·                Achieving your goal is simply not possible—and you’re not sure where else to look for one. “My reality is that my symptoms are not going away, and they are going to get worse over time,” wrote a player living with the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS. “That doesn’t make me want to give up—far from it! But it does make it hard for me to figure out what to pick as an epic win, since a cure is not a possibility for me.”

·                You have no goal. You cannot imagine anything that would make you feel happy or successful. As one player put it, “My problem is, I cannot think of anything, even something small, that would give me joy.” This problem is surprisingly common. The neurochemistry of depression, anxiety, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and many other illnesses can make it extremely difficult for sufferers to anticipate positive future outcomes.5 (A dopamine imbalance is often to blame.) If this is true for you, you are far from alone. But know that even if you can’t imagine an epic win for yourself yet, you can still achieve one. Try Quest 43 below, or ask your allies for suggestions.

Sneaking up sideways on your challenge can help you leapfrog right past any of these obstacles and achieve an epic win sooner than you think. You don’t have to pick a goal that directly solves your problems. It’s okay to have fun with it and aspire to any kind of accomplishment that appeals to you.

To give sneaking up sideways a chance right now, try the next quest!

 QUEST 43: Sneak Up Sideways

The rules for sneaking up sideways on a win are simple. Just think of a goal that gives you a spark of joy, curiosity, purpose, or meaning. It can be big or small, silly or serious; as long as going for it sounds like fun, it will make a great epic win.

Here are some brainstorming questions to help you sneak your way to a happier, healthier, braver you. Remember, just for the moment, forget your practical goals. It’s perfectly okay if your answers to the questions have nothing to do (at least on the surface!) with the challenge you’ve chosen for yourself.

·   What’s the most fun thing you can imagine doing thirty days from now? Whatever it is, announce to yourself that doing that thing is going to be your first epic win. Now go try to plan it and make it happen!

·   What’s an activity that you’ve always wanted to explore but never felt like you had time? Pick an amount of time to commit to it over the next ninety days. If you spend at least that much time doing it, you win.

·   What’s a cause or charity you care about? Pick a way to show your support, whether it’s raising money or volunteering a set number of hours, over the next ninety days.

·   How could you express yourself creatively? Choose to make a video, write a song, self-publish a book, create a photo gallery, sculpt something, paint a mural, write an epic poem, or otherwise share a vision and make your voice heard.

·   Where would you like to go that you’ve never been before? Plan a trip or a local adventure someplace new. It’s a great way to motivate yourself sneakily to do all kinds of other worthy things, whether it’s get in shape, save money, make more time for friends and family, finish that thing you’ve been procrastinating on, or even just get out of bed when that’s difficult.

·   Who is a person you care about deeply? Choose to do something special for that person, such as throwing a gratitude party for him or her. (Invite all the guests to bring a thank-you letter or other expression of gratitude for the guest of honor. You can do a gratitude party online as a virtual party, or in person.)

·   What’s a new skill you could learn in the next six months? Make a plan for how you’ll learn it. Then pick a way to show off your new skill in a big way. That demonstration is your epic win.

·   What challenge have you always wondered if you were up for? Whether it’s running a marathon or taking an online course, finally give it a shot once and for all.

·   What do you already know that you could teach others? Decide to pay it forward by sharing your wisdom and expertise with someone who could really benefit. It could be anything that shares knowledge: editing twenty Wikipedia articles on a topic you care about, giving a demonstration at your workplace, starting a blog or podcast, volunteering at a local school, self-publishing a self-help manual, or even starting a group to teach people how to get superbetter!

Why it works: When people pursue goals that match their core values, they put in more effort and are therefore more likely to achieve them. Moreover, when they do achieve their goals, they reap greater benefits: more happiness and a sense of personal satisfaction that lasts longer.6 Sneaking up sideways will help you focus on your core values—not what you think you should be doing but what you really want to do.

What to do: List at least one surprising idea for an epic win here.


Tips: You’re not committing to any epic wins yet—so feel free to give yourself more than one option to choose from.

Even if you decide to tackle a measurable win or a breakthrough moment first, keep these sneaky wins in mind for the future!

A SuperBetter Story: The Master of Sneaky Wins

You truly never know where your epic wins will take you. Andrew Johnston, forty-five years old and a father of three, is living proof of that.

Five years ago he hit rock bottom. Laid off from his job as an executive recruiter, he was unable to find work, despite having an MBA and spending hours a day on the search. After a year of fruitless efforts, his family’s savings were gone, and their home in the Denver suburbs was nearing foreclosure.

Andrew seemed to be failing at everything, no matter how hard he tried. He needed to succeed at something, anything. So in the midst of this difficult time, he started devoting a few hours each day to something he’d had personal success with in the past: running.

Andrew was an experienced marathoner, and he picked up the hobby again—this time with more intensity. “I poured all my energy into it. I cranked it up to extremes,” he told me. He got faster, he ran longer, and he started competing in local races. He mastered grueling mountain terrain, tackling runs with thousands of feet of elevation gain. He finished ultramarathons, races at least fifty kilometers long. Every running goal he set for himself he achieved, even as he continued to struggle to find work.

It was a paradox. He could see his strengths so clearly when it came to running—commitment, determination, planning, and perseverance. He knew from over a decade of experience in recruiting and financial management that these character strengths are essential to success in the business world. So why, in his own life, weren’t they translating into better career resilience?

Finally he got a break, teaching business courses at a local community college. Soon afterward he had an epiphany. Maybe running, which had seemed like a distraction during his long period of unemployment, was in fact a path toward a career breakthrough.

Andrew went to the dean of the college and proposed an unusual course. It would be based on the idea that distance running builds the skills needed for success in business. He would call it “Change Through Challenge,” and—the craziest idea of all—the final exam would be to run a full marathon, all 26.2 miles.

It took some convincing, but Andrew won the dean over. The class filled up completely—and to make it more challenging, nearly every student in the course was brand-new to running. Over the sixteen-week course, they read business books and did two training runs together each week. Everyone in the course finished at least one race, and more than 70 percent of the students successfully completed the full marathon. (Others whose fitness hadn’t quite progressed far enough by the end of the course had the option to run a 10K or half-marathon as their “final exam.”)

What started as an experiment is now an unqualified success. Andrew has taught the “Change Through Challenge” course three times so far. And he is full of pride when he tells me that it is now officially approved as a credit-earning business course across the entire Colorado community college system. This year the program is expanding to Denver high schools. Meanwhile, his innovation has not gone unnoticed. Since starting his course, he has been promoted to associate dean of instruction.

Andrew believes that every victory he achieved running during that difficult time boosted his confidence and determination, which gave him the strength to keep looking for career wins. Without the athletic wins, he doesn’t think he would have had the optimism and creativity to imagine a marathon-based business course.

Today Andrew brings the philosophy of epic wins into his classroom, where the SuperBetter method is now a part of the official curriculum. “Not one person walks into the first class thinking they can run a marathon,” he told me. “When they see the training schedule, they all freak out. The numbers look impossible. They just can’t picture themselves being successful.” But for most students, belief kicks in very early in the process—usually, Andrew says, after they achieve their first breakthrough moment. “Running five miles is the real turning point for most students. It’s longer than any of them have ever run in their lives. Suddenly they say, ‘I’ve never done that before, but I just did it.’ Something clicks for them. A goal that used to seem impossible is now suddenly possible. It changes their whole mindset: What else that seems impossible now could become possible in just a few weeks? They become curious and want to find out.”

This curiosity about what’s possible is the quintessential experience of pursuing epic wins. And as Andrew’s journey reveals, any effort to achieve a personal breakthrough—even one that seems unrelated to your most pressing challenges—can lead you to the most wonderful and unexpected outcomes.

“I almost lost everything,” Andrew said. “But look where it led—to the most meaningful work of my life. I never expected to be here. But now I know. A real terrible thing can be a godsend.”

Like many of the epic wins described in this chapter, Andrew’s involved a physical triumph, something athletic in nature—walking, bicycling, running, summiting a mountain, or dancing in public. This isn’t just a feature of the particular stories I’ve selected. In fact, if you search the SuperBetter database for all the epic wins from more than 400,000 players, four of the ten most commonly appearing verbs are walk, run, exercise, and dance. (Other top epic win verbs include finish, find, and create.)

What’s perhaps surprising is that these athletic verbs are commonly found as epic wins for every possible challenge you can imagine, not just fitness or weight loss challenges. Physical and athletic epic wins are extremely popular among people tackling obstacles as diverse as overcoming depression or anxiety, recovering from concussion, coping with diabetes or PTSD, becoming a better parent, finding a romantic partner, and even finding a new job.

Why? Based on the stories I’ve heard and the data I’ve seen, I would have to say that athletic triumphs make for particularly motivating and compelling epic wins—meaning, if you’re still not sure what kind of epic win to go for, you cannot go wrong with a walk, run, swim, cycle, or dance epic win. Here’s why:

Physical activity is a known mood booster, which helps with almost any challenge. And exercise is one of the most effective treatments for depression, something that can often stand in between you and your nonathletic goals.7

Exercise changes your perception of pain, making you tougher and less sensitive to painful stimuli. (Scientists say this is because exercise puts physical, often painful, stress on your body; the more you exercise, the more “normal” your brain interprets pain signals, and therefore it pays less attention to them.)8 Being less vulnerable to physical pain is a type of resilience that can help you feel stronger in all areas of your life.

Athletic goals typically require a commitment to training, which builds determination and willpower—two strengths that benefit you in any challenge.

An athletic epic win—like completing a charity walk, running a 5K, finishing a yoga boot camp, earning your first belt in a new martial art, or participating in a fund-raising dance-a-thon—also gives your social resilience a huge lift, by connecting you to a much bigger community. If you have friends, family, or coworkers who participate with you, which is often the case, all the better for increasing your social strengths!

Finally, athletic wins often have a built-in sense of meaning and purpose, because so many walks, races, and athletic events are organized to raise money and awareness for a good cause. More meaning and purpose means more motivation, plus more positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, spiritual connection, awe, and wonder.

For all these reasons, at some point in your SuperBetter journey, you may find that an epic physical activity goal is the kind of triumph you want to pursue. Even if you’re not looking at improved fitness or weight loss as a goal, the unique combination of mental, emotional, social, and physical strengths you’ll gain by pursuing an athletic breakthrough makes it among the most transformative wins you can aspire to.

You’ve brainstormed at least a few epic wins for yourself. Now it’s time to pick the one you want to aim for first.

I recommend giving yourself a chance to achieve your first epic win quickly—if not in the next week, then at least in the next month.

As you consider which epic win to aspire to first, you might find it useful to check out the Epic Win Possibility Scale—a thirty-second tool you can use whenever you set your mind on a new potential win. Try it out, in your next quest!

 QUEST 44: The Epic Win Possibility Scale

Have you chosen a smart epic win? Here’s one way to find out.

What to do: Rate your potential epic wins on the Possibility Scale!

What will it take for you to achieve your epic win?

0—You could accomplish your epic in win in the next hour without breaking a sweat.

1—You could do it in a day, any day.

2—Give it a good week, and there’s at least a 50/50 chance you’ll be there.

3—It’ll take a couple of weeks and a strong effort.

4—You could accomplish it in thirty days, if you make a heroic effort.

5—Six weeks should do the trick.

6—A few months and real commitment, and you’ll get there.

7—It might take six months, but it’s worth it.

8—With heroic focus, and some help from the most important people in your life, you could do it in a year.

9—If you’re being honest, it takes a pretty wild imagination to picture yourself achieving this goal at all.

10—Someone would win a Nobel Prize if they achieved this epic win. Maybe two Nobel Prizes.


0–1: Dream bigger! You’re stronger than you think.

2–5: Congratulations! You’re perfectly on target for your first epic win.

6–8: You’ve got a great epic win, and you’re superambitious! Here’s a gameful tip: If you ever start to feel frustrated that you’re still far away from your goal, break it up into two or three smaller epic wins (somewhere in the 2–5 range) that you can tackle one at a time.

9–10: Good for you for being fearless—but getting superbetter will be more fun if you aim for something in the 2–8 range. And who knows? Rack up a few smaller epic wins, and you might become more likely to achieve your totally fearless goal!

Tip: Now that you’ve got the hang of it, use this chart whenever you decide to set out toward a new epic win. And don’t be afraid to imagine wins with a rating of 9 or 10 for yourself—just make sure to line up some more quickly achievable ones along the way.

Here are some final tips for pursuing your epic wins with a gameful mindset.

Tell your allies about the epic wins you plan to pursue. Making a public commitment to a goal increases your odds of achieving it.9

Be open to trying again. You’ll achieve greater triumphs if you’re open to failing the first time. (Imagine how boring games would be if we played only games that were so easy, we were assured of winning.) Thirty-five years’ worth of goal-setting research shows that harder goals inspire greater effort, as long as the goal is not absolutely and obviously beyond a person’s control or ability.10

Go only for wins that genuinely matter to you. This is the most important rule of all. When it comes to personal growth, success, and happiness, it’s not how much motivation you have that matters—it’s what kind of motivation. If your main motivation is to please someone else, or to live up to some external standard, you won’t be very happy, even if you do reach your goals. But if you pursue goals of your own choosing, you’re likely to be happier and healthier, whether or not you ever achieve them. (Fortunately, when you pursue goals of your own choosing, you are more likely to be successful.)11 Just remember, epic wins are a place to proudly—and if necessary, defiantly—proclaim what you want to be able to do.

Skills Unlocked: How to Achieve an Epic Win

·                An epic win is a gameful goal: it’s realistic but challenging; energizing but forgiving. Every epic win you go for should provoke at least a little bit of curiosity and wonder: Can I really do this?

·                Going for a measurable win is the easiest way to stretch your abilities and make leaps forward. Pick an improvement you’d like to make, and stick a number to it.

·                Plan a breakthrough moment. Imagine the single action you could take that would show off your commitment to be stronger.

·                You can also sneak up sideways on success, by going for an epic win that seems to have very little to do with your primary challenge. Just pick any goal that truly energizes you. This is a good strategy if you’re having a hard time finding a goal you feel truly optimistic or excited about.

·                Consider a physical feat for a future epic win, no matter what your challenge. Physical feats have provided some of the most meaningful transformations in SuperBetter history.

·                Always share and celebrate your wins with allies. No matter how ordinary your win might seem to someone else, relish it as if you just climbed Mount Everest. Celebrating positive achievements is a pivotal step toward post-ecstatic and post-traumatic growth.