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What We Can (and Can't) Learn From Olympians

8/13/2008 3:32:14 PM

The Olympic Games will begin shortly and, no doubt, treat us to a showcase of some of humankind’s best moments. Despite its imperfections, this quadrennial event confirms just how special people can be when they are dedicated to a goal, work hard at its accomplishment and have faith in themselves. For most of us, however, the athletes who compete in the Olympics seem a very different breed. They are more gifted than we, more talented, more able to succeed at realizing their aspirations. So, we assume that the journey of an Olympian holds little of relevance to our gifts and talent or to the aspirations at which we work. And, that assumption is incorrect.

Olympians are the living embodiment of three principles that are as important to each of us as they are to those who are world class athletes. Why is that so? Because every person has the ability to be a world class “career athlete,” to achieve career victories that may not award them a gold medal, but will earn them a perfect ten in self respect and happiness at work. How can that happen, especially in difficult times such as these? By incorporating those three Olympian principles into your career. And the key to doing that is to adopt the goals and beliefs of these special athletes.

Most Olympic athletes are ordinary people striving to do extraordinary things. They set out to be the best they can be in their chosen sport. That’s their all consuming goal. To continuously probe the outer limits of their ability to perform in archery, swimming, track or judo. They will reach for the outer reaches of what they can do, but at some point that reach will exceed their grasp. With some wonderful exceptions like Dara Torres, most of these athletes will see their push for perfection limited by the inherent aging of the human body. They have a brief shot at their personal best, and then their chance is gone.

Happily, we can adopt the very same goal but without the Olympian’s limitation. We can (and should) strive to be the best we can be in our chosen field of work, and with rare exceptions, we will never have to worry about being derailed in that quest by the frailties of the human body. All we have to do is accept the validity of this objective and make the commitment to work at it. We have to:

  • believe that we too have been graced with a special gift--a natural talent--at which we can become a world class performer;
  • acknowledge that we have an obligation to ourselves to express and experience that talent in its highest, its most developed state.

    Unlike Olympians, of course, our quest to be the best we can be will play out in the workplace. Work is the one endeavor where everyone can be challenged and pushed to explore and ultimately express the full dimensions of the talent which is their special gift. Our contest, however, won’t be guided by events or lanes, but by jobs and responsibilities. And equally as important, we won’t be measuring ourselves against others--against our competitors--but against ourselves--against what we have already achieved and what more we can strive to do.

    That’s the goal we can borrow from Olympians. It is a worthy vision in and of itself, but it is also the foundation for our understanding and using the three principles of Olympian success. They are:

    Find your natural talent and focus on nothing but it. Most of us aren’t ever going to be world class athletes, but every one of us can be world class performers in the workplace if we’re working at perfecting the talent with which we have been endowed. We all have a champion within us, we just have to figure out who that person is. That’s the secret to a healthy career—one replete with career victories at age 21, at age 61, and everywhere in between—find what it is that you most love to do and do best and center every minute you work on that. Admittedly, this insight is not always apparent at first glance. But everyone can acquire it because everyone already has it. Our insight is usually out of sight, but it’s there if we pay attention. We just have to listen to it to get it. That’s why it’s often referred to as our calling.

    It’s your job to develop and express your natural talent. As with your physical fitness, there is no free lunch when it comes to perfecting your natural talent. Even world class athletes must devote themselves to nurturing their talent. Equally as important, they acknowledge that it’s their responsibility to reach for and achieve their personal best. Some of us in the world of work, however, think that we can get by doing less or that someone else should make it possible for us to do more. We somehow get the idea that bringing our talent to the fore is the job of our employer or the government or our parents or … well, just about anyone but us. The truth, however, is that caring for your natural talent, like caring for your body, is a personal responsibility. You don’t have to eat a special diet, you don’t have to get up and run three miles every morning; but you do have to be sure you work in the right jobs—those that will engage and challenge you—and thereby enable you to do your best work.

    You have to work at perfecting your natural talent every day. Careers can grow slack and deteriorate just as our bodies can. Flabby bodies can lead to cardiac arrest; flabby careers can lead to career cardiac arrest or what most of us call unemployment. The only way to preserve and strengthen your career is by implementing the habits of a world class career athlete. These habits form a regimen of seven activities or “exercises” that should be performed on a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. One, for example, is to pump up your career’s cardiovascular system. The heart of a successful career athlete is their expertise in their profession, craft or trade. It’s not good enough, however, to know what you must do to perform your current job satisfactorily. You must also be competent in your knowledge of the state-of-the-art in your field and how to apply that expertise in an expanded definition of your current job or in a different and more expansive one. At best, the former gives you job security and even that for only as long as it suits your employer; the latter gives you career security or the ability to work in jobs that will engage and challenge you and thereby achieve the career victories that matter to you.

    So, watch the Olympics. Thrill to the joy of victory and reflect on the agony of defeat. Then, turn off the TV set and turn on the contest of your life. You have your own wonderful race to run. It won’t take you to the world’s medal stand, but it will position you to reach your own platform of perfection. Unlike the Olympians, however, you don’t have to settle for gold. Your challenge is the pursuit of Happiness, and victory there shines deeper and richer than any medal. It is the mark of a true career champion.

    Thanks for reading,

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