Like most of you I spent part of August glued to the television watching the Olympics. We are all the recipients of a quadrennial gift of excellence and elegance from the world’s athletes. The goal of the Olympics is to test yourself against the other best athletes in the world and to pursue a gold medal. Yet, a small percentage of the athletes actually get any kind of medal. So it is really more about being there and being a part of the process. And while we get to watch the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (as “Wide World of Sports” used to call it) the real lessons for us are more subtle and powerful.
The first lesson is that the important thing is that you can’t win if you don’t play. These athletes spend years of hard work and dedicated practice to perfecting their sport. And then they lay it on the line. I have known many good athletes who have great potential but they are unwilling to face the humiliation of defeat so they just don’t try. We need to teach our children how critical it is to try as hard as they can. They may fall short and be disappointed, but they will know the satisfaction of being in the arena and giving it their all.
We also learn that everything is relative. The man or woman who runs dead last in the 100 meters sprint and who on one level has failed could not be named “Pokey” in the greater world. They are still faster than 99.9% of the rest of the world. My oldest daughter, who was a brilliant student, thought as she was growing up that she was just average. That is because she went to a high school where everyone was smart. She was average in that context. Later, when she went to college and excelled, she realized that maybe she wasn’t so average after all. We need to help our children understand their own context and to not be limited by it.
Another lesson from the Olympics is that life is a team sport. Certainly the athletes are competing for individual medals but they are doing so as a member of a team. Every day they report which countries won which medals. So they were competing for the glory of their country. But they were also competing for the team in their own sport. We were all thrilled to the exploits of our swimmers such as Michael Phelps but he considered himself just a part of the swimming team and half his medals came in relay events where he was but one of four. And we swooned over the gymnastic team and their perfection. And whenever any of them were interviewed they talked about their team and their teammates and what it meant to be a part of their team.
While each of us has responsibility for our own efforts, we rarely do anything alone. We have our friends, our family and our greater community working with us and for us. It is crucial that our children learn that they are a part of the whole. As the poet reminded us, “no man is an island.” No one is a team of one. We are all in this together and competition in games or in life isn’t about individual glory, it is about service to others.
One of biggest lessons from the Olympics is how thin the line is between success and failure is. Sometimes it is the difference in millimeters or milliseconds. It might be choosing to make a last minute dive at the finish line. It can be running in first place and then sliding and falling. We are not always going to win in life. More often we are going to fall short. What do you do when you fall down? Do you lay there and feel sorry for yourself, or do you get up, brush yourself off and try again. There was actually one long distance race where the leader fell to the track, got up and won the race. We are taught in childhood that quitters never win and winners never quit. It is a cliché but like most clichés, it’s true.
There is also a thin line between winning and losing caused by how we see the world. If you are afraid to fail, you will probably fail. There is a concept known as the “Wallenda Factor” named for the great aerialist Karl Wallenda who fell to his death walking a tight rope between two buildings. His wife said later that Karl never talked about falling; he only talked about succeeding until that last fateful walk. She said he was obsessed about not falling and that was when he fell. Much of life’s successes and failures come where we put our focus.
We have all seen great athletes whose fear of failure trumped their abilities to succeed. They perform in a tight and constricted way and cannot do their best. We have to teach our children that failure is part of success. Edison, when he invented the light bulb was quoted as saying that he had not failed in his previous attempts, he had just found ten thousand ways that didn’t work. I had a friend who wrote a wonderful book entitled Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes, Wins. His premise was that it is only by making mistakes that you can find success. Mistakes and failure are part of life and it is important not to fear them. We should learn to embrace our failures as easily as we embrace our successes.
It is also important to understand what it takes to win. One of the most visible and celebrated Olympians this year was the gymnast Simone Biles, who won four golds and a bronze medal. She was asked how she could do some of the amazing moves she did. She replied that she worked hard and repeated the move over and over and at some point there was a “click” and she knew she had it. In his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that it takes 10,000 hours of work to become a Phenom. There is no question that Simone Biles is a Phenom and there is little doubt that she put in the 10,000 hours to feel that “click.” Hard work matters and we have to help our children understand that nothing in life comes easy. You have to work for it.
Let us hope that somewhere out there right now some of our children are putting in their ten thousand hours of practice, are learning to embrace their failure by learning to get back up, and are learning to work with others so that everyone succeeds. That will give us something to cheer for four years from now but it will also create a field of gold for all of us.