It's impossible not to admire the discipline, focus, willingness to sacrifice and grace under pressure exhibited by the Olympic champions. Even so, there's something about the relentless focus on winning — and more specifically, our shared reverence for "winners" — that leaves me feeling deeply uneasy.
You can't help but feel the heartbreak when an Olympic athlete falls just short of winning: Taylor Phinney missing a medal by inches in Olympic cycling; Allison Schmitt losing the gold medal by 3/10ths of a second in the 400 meter freestyle in swimming; four U.S. archers losing the gold to Italy on the final arrow, by a single point.
But does falling a tiny bit short make these athletes losers unworthy of our admiration? Are the winners of these competitions different from them in any meaningful way? Is winning all it's cracked up to be?
I'm not out to rain on the parade of extraordinary athletes who manage to win an Olympic gold medal. I'm also not a fan of competitions for children in which everyone gets a medal just for showing up. I just want to suggest the limitations of a "winner take all" mentality, not just in the Olympics but in our culture as a whole.
Let's start with the limitations for the winners themselves. The pursuit of any challenging goal is usually long and difficult, but the pleasure of the victory tends to be fleeting. As any gambler knows, there is more pain in losing than there is pleasure in winning. I say this not only from interviewing high achievers for several decades, but also from some experience of my own.
I was lucky enough — and luck had a lot to do with it — to have a couple of the books I've written reach number one on bestseller lists. These were enjoyable milestones, to be sure — confirmation of a certain kind of accomplishment and exhilarating when they occurred. But they were also just moments in time. Very quickly they became yesterday's news.
Just consider a winner such as Michael Phelps, who decided to move on from swimming after winning his 8 gold medals in Beijing four years ago. Very quickly, he found himself in a depression that lasted until he got back in the water and started training again, presumably hoping to recapture the feeling of satisfaction he'd lost so quickly. Whatever happens in these Olympics, Phelps must face the same question again once his races are over. "Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?" asked the poet Robert Louis Stevenson.
The glib answer is failure, but the real issue is that we've defined winning in a way that promises far more than it can deliver. We push children who show a glimmer of talent to focus in one sport, before they're teenagers, and even to sacrifice their bodies, so that they might become champions. We tell teenagers that the key to success is getting into a top-rated college, even though there are hundreds of schools at which it's possible to get a great education. When they graduate, society tells them that a key measure of achievement is financial success, and too often they pursue it believing that more and more money will eventually translate into happiness.
Even if any of this was true — and I've seen precious little evidence it is — the way we've defined winning makes it attainable only for a tiny percentage of people, and even then demands a kind of single-minded focus that can create a narrow and limited life.
How can we redefine winning so there are more ways to do it, and it's more satisfying? A few suggestions:
- Winners are people who consistently invest effort, persevere, and keep getting better at whatever it is they do — regardless of whether they win anything.
- Winners have goals, which provide direction and motivation, but recognize that the ongoing satisfaction comes from the everyday experience of moving towards any given goal.
- Winners are people who aren't afraid to lose — and they learn and grow from it. "I missed more than 9000 shots in my career," says Michael Jordan. "26 times I was trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
- Winners use their skills not just to build their own value, but also to add value in the world — to give back and pay forward. Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi both won the same number of Grand Slam tournaments during their careers. Connors invested in casinos after he retired from tennis. Agassi invested in building a charitable foundation, a charter school, and a residence for abused and neglected children in Las Vegas. For my money, only one of them is a real winner.
What winners recognize, above all, is that the ultimate goal is never to vanquish an opponent or to prove something to others, but rather to more fully realize their own potential, whatever that may be.