The Agony of Defeat is Mercifully Temporary

fortunate failure series

How you perceive failure determines your success.

In his now-famous introduction to his weekly show Wide World of Sports (1961-1998), Jim McKay’s voice eloquently describes what keeps fans tuning in to athletic competitions. As a ski jumper epically crashes out of a race and tumbles off the side of the ramp, McKay’s voiceover rings out unforgettably “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Athletic competition is a striking metaphor for life, leadership, goal attainment, and failure. Participating in team sports and competitions demonstrates many qualities like time management, persistence, coachability, and teamwork. That’s why many companies hire athletes. In her INC article, “7 Reasons Athletes Make the Best Employees,” Christina DesMarais states, “Nobody likes to lose, but in sports someone always does. Athletes are familiar with the bitter taste of defeat. It’s taught them to learn from failure, understand where to improve, and move on. Athletes often will channel setbacks to fuel future performance.”

In this video from our Fortunate Failures series, STN Managing Director Eric Sperling recounts the lessons he learned from his own high school athletics career and how one failure, in particular, has fueled his performance. He paints a painstakingly relatable picture for us. He knew he’d made a bad play, a split-second decision that directly led to an interception and him laying face down in the grass, hurt, and hearing parents booing on his home team’s sideline.

Like Sperling, I learned one of my greatest career and life lessons through athletics. My school held an Olympics-style sporting event, complete with teams participating in a variety of competitions over a weeklong period. I was decidedly not an athlete nor popular, so I was pleasantly surprised when my teachers assigned me to co-captain a team.

When it came to selecting our team, I was excited by the prospect of picking the most popular students and my friends. My co-captain, Judy, had other ideas. “No,” she said, overruling my first picks. “Let’s pick Nancy because….” She went on to explain her choice, giving me examples that spoke more to Nancy’s character than her athletic prowess. I was slightly stung by Judy’s quickness to challenge my suggestions. And then I turned and looked at Nancy, standing awkwardly in line, worrying that she would be the last to be picked, and I felt a sudden twinge in my gut. I wasn’t sure my co-captain was right, but I remembered how thrilled I was to be selected as a captain. We announced her as our pick, and she joined our team. And so went our other picks.

It turned out that Judy was right. Each person we selected performed outstandingly, finishing in the top three if not first place of all the events. But much to my disappointment, captains also had to participate in at least two events. Mine were the high jump and a relay race. Neither event was my strong suit nor was any other for that matter. But I was a rule follower. I dutifully participated, swallowing my fear and desperately wishing myself invisible.

In my mind, I failed at both events. In the high jump as the bar moved higher and higher, I could only think of the impossibility of clearing it. And sure enough, on my last jump, I hit it and flopped onto the mat, deeply disappointed and embarrassed while trying to put on a brave face. Judy patted me on the back. “Great job!” I didn’t see how she could mean it, but I appreciated the support.

Finally, it was my turn to run the relay. Our school didn’t have a track at the time, so we ran the perimeter of an open field adjacent to the playground. On my final loop, I twisted an ankle in a divot in the grass and fell. Horrified, I jumped back to my feet, hoping no one had seen me fall, and continued running to the finish line. My pride hurt more than my ankle.

I nearly ran into Judy’s arms. “I’m sorry I fell,” I said, too breathless to cry. “Yes, but you got back up,” Judy exclaimed. And I felt ever so slightly better. A couple of other students and a teacher commented, not on my fall, but how I’d kept running, and each time, I felt the tiniest notch better.

When it was time for the medal ceremony, we waited anxiously for the results. I hated that I let my team down, failing not once but twice. I was sure we’d drop out of medal contention if not fall to last place because of my failures. The teachers began calling the teams in reverse order. Bronze, then silver. And I took solace in the fact that even if we were last of all teams, at least our teachers wouldn’t call our names at all.

And then they called us. I was dumbfounded. How could we win gold when I had failed, not once but twice? I wondered whether the teachers had adjusted the results to teach some moral lesson. I must have questioned the results because I remember Judy and one of the teachers explaining to me that although I hadn’t come in first in either event, I had continued participating, and I had placed high enough to put us in first as a team overall. I had forgotten all the jumps I had cleared and was focused on the one I failed.

That experience taught me many lessons in leadership through failure. So powerful were those lessons that I applied them regularly throughout my career when I’d experience setbacks. Much to my teams’ chagrin, I even recounted the story periodically to explain leadership decisions I’d made.

Try to develop heart. Try to develop strength, courage and persistence. Little victories become big victories.

In reflecting on that experience yet again, this time under the light of fortunate failures and Sperling’s relatable example, I see more deeply into what that experience gave me personally, not just as a leader but now as a business owner and consultant.

I wasn’t an athlete. There was no training for the competition. It was simply announced and the next week, we were competing. Yet, I was so focused on finishing first that I lost sight of my own value as a team player, the value of consistent contributions, and the value of effort. I listened to my self-talk more than those cheering me on. And while my fear and self-doubt may have drowned out my ability to see my steady progress towards the goal and the small wins along the way, Sperling’s words ring true. “Try to develop heart. Try to develop strength, courage and persistence. Little victories become big victories.”

In his video, Sperling breaks failures down. He had a failed play within a failed game and a  failed game within a failed season. But he learned a lesson that’s helped him win throughout his life and career.

In my case, thanks more to my upbringing rather than my athleticism, I had strength, courage, and persistence that came to the forefront during an intense challenge. What I lacked that Sperling’s video has taught me was to break my failures down. A failed game and a failed season don’t mean total failure as an athlete. My failed final jump didn’t override several successful jumps when I’d cleared the bar. A fall in the final leg of a race didn’t win me the race, but getting back up and finishing kept me from failing my team.

Those lessons are valuable to anyone who is striving for something and especially leaders who may experience temporary setbacks. Seeing setbacks for what they are—points in time and markers of progress—can help quiet self-doubt and help you achieve and perceive success more quickly.

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