How to be as successful as Olympians

A recent article examined 7 reasons why Olympians attain a high level of success.  While it is easy to read this article and see how it relates to the athletes, it can be more difficult to relate these same 7 reasons to our own lives.  Allow me to illustrate how following or not following these 7 strategies my goals have been affected:

1. Knowing how hard to push – Several years ago, a friend of mine revealed he had a goal to run a marathon before his 30th birthday.  His 29th birthday was 2 months away, and there was only one fall marathon season between his 30th birthday and his goal.  To help my friend, I told him I would train as well.  I was starting from about 250lbs at 5’9″ and most of athletic endeavors had been in strength training, not endurance.  That spring, summer, and early fall, I worked my weight down to 204 lbs, and I worked my mileage up to about 50-60 miles per week.  About 2 weeks prior to the marathon, for which I was already prepared to run, I developed an overuse injury (strain of the iliotibial band).  Though my friend was prepared and ran the marathon, I was in too much pain to even be a good spectator.  I didn’t know how hard to push.  I ignored warning signs of discomfort and earlier fatigue, which if I had stopped, I would have met my goal.  In my work life, I often find that I push too hard to complete tasks assigned to me, and by doing so, I annoy my coworkers, and I can become burned-out too early.  It is a constant battle for me to know when to slow down.

2. Optimism – I tend to be a pessimist, because I am sometimes an unrealistic optimist.  One of the problems with being a pessimist is that it is more difficult to see opportunities, even in failure.  Like knowing how hard to push, optimism is best practiced with a full understanding of one’s self, his abilities, the possible outcomes, and what is acceptable.  Too often, when I allow myself to be an optimist, I take it too far.  While this is present in all aspects of my life, one of the most recent occurrences drained me emotionally for several days because I let myself be carried away.  Forgetting the current economic conditions and internal moves my company had made, I allowed myself to get excited about the possibilities of my upcoming annual review.  My responsibilities had increased, and I showed measurable growth in those areas by as much as 40% over the previous year.  I anticipated a substantial raise to accompany my stellar review.  I was rewarded with one of the best reviews of my professional career, but when compensation was discussed, I was devastated because what had been approved as a maximum payroll increase was 2%.  This did not approach what I had dreamed to receive, but it was in-line with the previous year, and it was approximately the national average for those fortunate to receive a raise.  Had I kept my expectations within the realms of reason, I would have been pleased with the 2% raise, because that is what all indicators pointed to as reasonable.  Living in my fairytale optimism pushed me into severe pessimism, which is not productive.

3. Self-Awareness – As with Olympic athletes, each of us must be self-aware so we do not extend ourselves beyond that of which we are capable.  I am fortunate to be a quick learner; however, I still have a difficulty learning when to say “no”, even when it is to my benefit as well as the benefit of the person requesting something of me.  In all aspects of my life, I have tried to be all things to all people, but in recent years, I have found that I do have limitations. Professionally, I have learned that I do not make a highly successful salesperson, largely because it does not interest me due to the amount of conflict.  Where I have excelled is intellectual pursuits where problem solving, writing, or critical/analytical thinking has been involved.  When I advised my management that I would strongly prefer, for my good and the good of the company, that I not be involved in sales, they disagreed on the level of my skill set, but they respected my request by having sales support be a portion of my responsibilities rather than a primary responsibility.  My self-awareness has led to a more enjoyable and a more productive work day.

4. Intrinsically motivated – As I wrote about in What Drives You?for a goal to be driving force, the desire to achieve that goal must come from within.  For Olympic athletes, yes, a desire to receive compensation or to be awarded a medal is present, but of the thousands who were there to compete, many knew that it was unrealistic that they would win, yet the competed because of their passion to succeed in their given events.  What I found truly interesting about the results of the Olympics is that Great Britain provided no financial reward for winning a medal at the Olympics, yet the had the third highest medal count.  Italy paid the most of any countries to the Olympic champions, yet they ranked 8th.  While I am not suggesting the Italian athletes had any less desire than the British, it is evident that the British did not rely on external motivating factors to excel.  For me, the satisfaction I get from a job well done is a more consistent pleasure than any external motivation.  Reflecting on the raise mentioned in point 2 “Optimism”, I was very proud of the work that I had accomplished, and it wasn’t until I looked for external satisfaction that I was disappointed.

5. The healthy type of perfectionism – While the article to which this post is linked accidentally repeated “Intrinsically motivated” for this slide, I believe what is meant by “healthy type of perfectionism” is doing work with a high level of precision and with pride, without nitpicking over the non-essential items.  For example, when I proofread a technical manual for my company, I try to correct most grammar and spelling errors; however, it is more important to ensure that all references to steps, to page numbers, and to other references are accurate.  Many installers will forgive a spelling error, but an incorrect reference can cost them time and money, especially if it results in an installation error.  Though I strive to write to write well, I have come to accept that for the task of an installation manual, my perfectionism needs to be focused on accurately conveying information to the installer.  Essentially, the instructions need to be “perfectly clear.”

6. Plans to deal with distractions – For a highly successful athlete, this must be one of the most difficult tasks to do well.  Since media attention is what will produce income or will provide financial support for the athletes after the games, it must be difficult to not answer every beck and call of their life’s blood, yet many of them can do it.  For me, I am still working on how to deal with distractions.  I work from home, which I greatly appreciate, and I recognize I am fortunate to be in the position; however, distractions abound.  My wife and daughter are home for the summer,  so it can be difficult to not stop and chat with them.  My job requires me to research projects on the internet and to post to Facebook and other social media, so it is tempting to take care of a bill or to research a hotel for a vacation, but those distractions do not accomplish my work for me.  Though ideally I would be able to work straight through without distraction, I know I am better focused if I schedule time for a break, like I would have in a regular office environment.  Doing this helps me manage my distractions, so they are less invasive into my productivity.

7. Routine – Sometimes “routine” gets a bad rap as “the same old routine”, but the routine is what allows a person to 1. know how hard to push 2. be optimistic about performance because they are 3. self-aware because they have been well-practiced and 4. are intrinsically motivated from seeing where they have had successes and failures and they like the feeling of success, so they 5. pursue a healthy type of perfectionism to ensure more of the great feelings of success, and finally they 6. can plan and execute how to deal with distractions.  Without a routine, it is difficult to know what to expect, and therefore, the rest of the items cannot properly come together.  For me, I am happiest when I have expectations for my day.  I know Monday through Friday, I am going to be working my day job, and I know the possibilities exist that I may take on a side job or two each evening.  Though I may not have these side jobs planned when I awake, they are in my routine.  When my routine is disrupted, usually through lack of communication, it is more difficult to keep my day on schedule.

Can you identify where these 7 traits are most commonly found or are missing in your life?  Which ones do you need the most work on incorporating into your life?  I know I have a long ways to go to become an Olympic champion version of myself.

About Craig Collins

Craig Collins has a BS in History. After college, he spent many years looking for a job, rather than a career. Inspired by Ayn Rand and others, Craig learned that a meaningful life must be lived with intention and direction in order to achieve happiness and fulfillment. Through his writings, he intends to share both his struggles and triumphs in how reason has helped to improve his quality of life. Craig currently works for an international luxury product manufacturer as a marketing and sales expert. He is married and is the father of a wonderful daughter.

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