I once had the privilege of attending a seminar and listening to an interview with Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. While Phelps epitomizes winning, I most enjoyed his stories of losing. It reminded me that the greatest opportunities for growth are the times we don’t prevail.
Phelps recounted a race several years ago where an Australian, Ian Thorpe, was the heavy favorite and world record holder of the 200-meter freestyle event. At the time, freestyle was not Phelps’ strongest event, but he wanted to race regardless. “I had no business being in the pool with him, but I always want to compete against the best,” he said. Phelps did not win the race, but he learned. He learned about his competition, he learned about himself. Losing also gave him more motivation to win. In 2008 at Beijing, Phelps won the gold in the very same event, clocking a new world record in the process.
Some say “you win some, you lose some.” I prefer to say “you win some, you LEARN some.” Losing happens too often in life for it to be the end result. The key is to make losing manifest into positive learning. With this perspective, you always win.
I recently applied for something where I had no business “swimming” in the particular applicant pool. It required a tremendous amount of work, introspective reflection, and exposure to nay-sayers. Like most dreams, it was scary to pursue. While I didn’t win, I learned. I learned that reaching for a lofty goal never ends in failure, that being your best requires help from the best (i.e. – my wife), and that competing is always better than idling through life.
Whether you’re an athlete striving for gold medals or a desk jockey working towards a promotion, we all should be competing. Most of us aren’t Michael Phelps, however, and we will lose our fair share of races. But don’t let losing scare you away from competing. The losses that can fuel your growth will always be more valuable than the victories that feed your ego.