The Psychology of Quiet Success: Our Biggest Battles Are Fought Behind Closed Doors

On the 11th of February 1990, James “Buster” Douglas stepped into the boxing ring with Mike Tyson in an event that was advertised as “Tyson is Back.” As a 42-to-1 underdog, Douglas was barely expected to make it past round 1. Odds were so skewed that most bookmakers wouldn’t even accept a bet on Douglas to win. It was such a ‘sure thing’ that people were betting upwards of $100,000 just to win $3000-4000.

For most of the fight, Douglas was incredibly successful, which came as a shock to all who were in attendance. But in the eighth round, after 24 minutes of fighting, with only ten seconds left in the round, Tyson landed a devastating right uppercut knocking Douglas to the canvas. 

Douglas was down for a nine-count, but he was miraculously saved by the bell with just one second to spare. Round nine began, and Tyson came out with his trademark aggression, desperately trying to put an end to the fight once and for all. But Douglas weathered the storm and began landing heavy shots. Then in round ten, after 34 minutes and 22 seconds of back-and-forth James “Buster” Douglas landed an uppercut, followed by a flurry of punches to drop Mike Tyson and win by Knock Out. 

The world was shocked.

This was by far the biggest upset in boxing history and the biggest challenge of Douglas’ career and he overcame it. His win was rewarded with overnight fame, fortune and praise. He became somewhat of an icon and his $1.3 million payday for the Tyson fight paled in comparison to the record-breaking $24.6 million he was paid just 8 months later against Evander Holyfield. David had defeated Goliath and boxing fans would continue to talk about it for years to come.

It was the stuff of fairy tales. Only…it wasn’t. 

It may have been the biggest challenge of Douglas’ career, but it was not the biggest challenge of his life – not even close.

The public saw the unbelievable achievement on that night and that’s what they remembered about the life of Buster Douglas. Douglas went home and spent the next few months in a whirlwind. Struggling to grasp his newfound fame, he was now fighting legal battles, depression and an eating disorder. He lost the Evander Holyfield fight, several close family members passed away, his depression worsened, he began drinking heavily, put on almost 200lb’s in weight, his lifestyle led him to almost dying in a diabetic coma. It would be six years before he fought again, and his career would never reach the same heights.

“Life is definitely harder than fighting Tyson.” – James “Buster” Douglas

There will be no movies made about his depression, weight gain, relationships or legal problems. The front page of newspapers will never show photos of the tears, the sleepless nights, the funerals, or the empty bottles. You won’t hear the eerie beep of the EKG machine, the murmous of his concerned loved ones or his thoughts of suicide or self-loathing.

Fortunately for Buster Douglas, he was able to overcome that time in his life and continue to live for another three decades, although I’m sure not without further challenges. 

But there are important lessons to be learned from the Buster Douglas story.

Firstly, the biggest battles you face will probably go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Despite what we see in the movies, you won’t overcome life’s toughest challenges and be met with trumpets, confetti and a giant cheque. Most of the time it will be back to business as usual. 

Because of this, it’s really important to stop and smell the roses, to celebrate small victories, be kind to yourself, and all manner of other sayings which people post on Instagram but never seem to take seriously. Rewarding yourself for overcoming life’s challenges is an important way to correct the perspectival imbalance that media has on your psyche.

Thirdly, your achievements don’t define you. Sure, they give you goals, structure and meaning, but at the end of the day there are always going to be things outside of your control: your health, your resources, your responsibilities to others, even the amount of time in a day. It’s important to constantly remember that the image you see from others is not their life. I once saw a couple arguing in a park, almost at the point of screaming. The woman pulled out her phone, mid-argument, to take a selfie, they both smiled and hugged for a brief second as the photo was taken, then let go of each other and went back to arguing. 

In Zen Buddhism there is something called Shoshin, which is usually translated as “Beginners Mind.” Shoshin means looking at things with fresh eyes, curiosity, and openness, even when dealing with something at an advanced level. When we face either challenges or triumphs in life, we never really know where it’s going to lead, for better or worse. It’s important not to get too carried away with our ideas about how things are or how they should be – because ultimately, we never really know. 

So, if everyone is potentially going through hardships that we don’t see, what’s the best way to deal with that? Not just for them, but for you, the relationship between you, and for communities at large. Well, it’s simple enough – compassion. Suffering might be a bitter pill to swallow but sharing that suffering with someone else will at least make it bitter-sweet.

People are quietly overcoming the biggest challenges of their lives every single day, and just going on as if nothing ever happened. We tend to highlight our other more tangible and socially acceptable accomplishments (graduations, birthdays, promotions at work etc.). I’m not saying we need to change all of our systems of rewards overnight – or give everyone a participation medal for that matter – but words of encouragement and appreciation cost us nothing and go a long way. 

Remember that to struggle does not make you weak, it makes you human. And if you believe otherwise, then do me a favour and go tell that to Buster Douglas.

Published by

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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