As Australians compete with the best in the world it has been gut wrenching to watch James Magnussen, Emily Seebohm and the rowers from the almost-awesome foursome express everything from chagrin to despair at having garnered a silver medal.
Holly Bleasdale’s hopes for an Olympic pole vault medal ended in bitter disappointment as nerves appeared to get the better of her. The 20-year-old UK athlete was on the verge of tears as she failed her final attempt at 4.55m, well below her best this summer of 4.71m. Photograph via mailonline.com.
These sublime athletes have been apologetic for failing to win gold but have they really failed and even if they have, is failure really such a dire thing?
Failure is an option.
Despite what motivational speakers with suspiciously fulsome hairstyles will tell you, failure is not only an option it’s a stone cold certainty.
You just can’t live without failing, and even success is built on failure. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination”. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Henry Ford went broke five times before he got his cars on the road to success.
Every success has failure as part of the back story but the real question is, what is failure anyway?
Ultimately, failure is expectations not met.
The Dalai Lama has said that expectation is the foundation of failure but where do those expectations come from?
When he came last in the final of the 400m, Australian runner Steve Solomon beamed at his interviewer and said that he was totally happy with the result quipping, “Somebody has to come last and today it was me.” Solomon had exceeded his own expectations by making the final but if Kirani James, the winner of the event, had run last, his reaction would have been different because his expectations were different.
All of which goes to show that failure is a matter of perception, not an absolute. In fact, if you look at it honestly, failure can be a positive experience.
Failure is a gift.
Success can be fun, there’s no point denying that but failure offers something priceless that even success can’t offer; failure offers feedback.
As you tumble through life it can be hard to get a true perspective on who you are and where you are headed yet we all crave that information. “Life coaches” build careers on this craving but failure offers you unprejudiced feedback and it’s free.
When failure happens you get the chance to stop and take stock of your life.
Sure, Usain Bolt had a stadium full of 80,000 people screaming adulation for his efforts in winning the 100m gold medal. There will be endorsements and riches that follow and he’ll probably never have to buy himself a drink, or anything else, again. Yet he didn’t have something that Justin Gatlin who won the bronze medal had; he didn’t have a “gap”.
As Bolt strutted to the adulating ululations of the crowd, Gatlin knelt on the track and sought to take in what had just happened. His failure to win gold had afforded him a gap for self-reflection and self-awareness.
In the gap created by failure you can see reality in a way that can be obscured by the heat and fury of success.
Let’s not forget too that the gold medals won by Sally Pearson and Anna Meares were forged in the fabulous flames of “failure”. Without the gifts of determination, perspective, and understanding offered by the “failure” of silver medals at Beijing both women may not have been gliding on gold at London.
The silver lining.
So let’s look at the silver lining here. Yes, Australians have with disarming regularity successfully failed to win gold at these Olympic Games. Yet out of that failure comes time for reflection and evaluation. Swimming Australia has already announced a review of the performance. Let’s hope that review does not seek to assign blame but rather looks at the way forward. As part of that let’s also hope that a re-evaluation of our expectations is made.
Coming second in the world is wonderful.
Coming eighth or 30th in the world is still fantastic!
I’ll take being the 30th richest person in the world, thankyou!
Most importantly, let’s take the fear out of failure; we are all going to do fail, so let’s be prepared for it and do it with elegance.
*Terry Robson is a journalist, author, and broadcaster. He is the co-editor of WellBeing magazine and writes widely as a freelance journalist for magazines and newspapers. He and has previously been an online columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also co-presenter of the podcast Talking Health for the ABC. Terry has previously worked as health correspondent for SKY News, the Seven Network, Channel TEN, and NBN Television. He has published four books with his latest, Failure IS an Option published by ABC Books. Terry has degrees in psychology, archaeology, naturopathy and a diploma of education.
For Terry’s series of podcasts with Wendy Harmer, Strange Days Indeed, go here.