Can you be happy in last place?

Mens 100m final by William Warby

In almost every, quantified activity, someone has to come last.

Someone has to be the slowest, the weakest, the lowest.

It’s the brutal result of us quantifying our performance and there is no way around it.

Even in the Olympic sprinting finals. Even if each finisher smashes the winning times from all the heats, someone comes in 8th place.

Dead last.

And coming last sucks.

Firstly, there’s the crushing feeling of failure which hits you immediately.

Then there’s the discomfort and pity you receive from the witnesses, both of which can be worse that the original experience.

When you come last, all the effort you sank into the project: the time, the money, the sacrifice, the focus – it all seems to have been in vain.

Because you came last.

But to be honest, all that is bullshit.

If you’re unhappy with last place, then you’re thinking about it the wrong way. If you’re tethering your happiness to elements outside of your control, you’ll be disappointed no matter the outcome.

All you can judge is what you can control. And to be clear, our sense of what we control in this world, is massively over-inflated.

You can’t control whether you beat someone else. You can’t control the outcome, only what you put in.

You can control your training, your outlook, your technique, your focus, your attitude and your commitment.

All the other factors: The weather, competitors, referee, market and environment. They’re all in the hands of other agents and those external factors are going to influence whether you win or lose, just as much as your own performance will.

If you have to judge yourself, then do it by criteria decoupled from those external factors. Focus on measurements of what you control. Your speed, your distance, your time, your effort, your rate of improvement, your personal best.

But even with that kind of outlook, even with all the training in the world, you’re still going to occasionally find yourself in last place.

And at that point, you need to remember:

Dead Last Finish is greater than Did Not Finish which trumps Did Not Start.

The northern line sprint

Recently, I’ve really started to dig a good sprint. I love any short burst of focussed work made possible almost entirely by the imposed deadline.

Write a piece about topic X to publish sometime soon? Sure. But write a piece about topic X, to publish by the time the Northern line gets to Highgate? Now that’s a sprint.

And this is weird because I’m a long distance runner. Every day to work and then a longer loop on the weekend, step, step, step, step. With no thought of the time, just the distance. Step, step, step, step. Just the relentless march of marathon training. And I love it. The steadiness, the endurance, even the monotony. Perhaps my love of these things I know others hate is why I identify so strongly as a distance runner.

But now here I am… sprinting… AND, really enjoying it. I guess I find this weird because I see myself as a distance runner more than a sprinter. For some reason they seem mutually exclusive. There’s no reason of course why you couldn’t be both, but we typically have a set, sense of ourselves – what we are and what we aren’t. It’s ludicrous, but not uncommon. I’m a generalist, not a specialist. I’m an extrovert, not an introvert. I’m a distance runner, not a sprinter.

Perhaps these labels help others to interact with us without having to think too much, but they represent a kind of closed thinking which limits our options in any given situation.

In our attempt to play the role as the extravert or the generalist, we miss a key moments and insights – both available to anyone with their eyes open to a wider range of perspectives. With our eyes open, we have more choices and more flex. More power.

We’re leopards who do change their spots. So much so in fact, that they shouldn’t be considered spots, more like active camouflage.

Today we sprint, tomorrow we go the distance, flexible enough to adapt to the situations around us. But if we don’t want others to pigeonhole us, then we’d better not first pigeonhole ourselves.

(written London Bridge –> Highgate)

The difference between winning & being the best

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If you want to be the best at something, the ACTUAL best, you’ve got a lot of races ahead of you.

First you run an offensive, catch-up race where you’re the challenger.

If you catch the leader, then you have a struggle as equals.

And finally, if you win, you have to run the defensive race.

Now you’re the king of the hill, and everyone wants to take you down.

If you want to be the best and STAY the best, then you have a taste for all three races.

The races all have different flavours, require different skills and will present different challenges.

For the first two stages, you can just focus forward – all your threats are out in front. As soon as you’re out in front, then the temptation is to look over your shoulder. And that compromises your speed. That feeds paranoia. That changes the flavour of the race.

If you have a taste for all three races (and you’ve got lots of fuel in the tank), then good luck.

If you don’t, then you might want to think about what you’re going to do.

Do you hitch a ride with someone who’s running your race and jump ship when they start to run a new one?

Do you try to develop a taste and a talent for all the other races?

Do you play a different game entirely?

Everyone’s going to have their own answer, but to me the premise is flawed.

As soon at you want to be the ACTUAL best, then the game is rigged. The cards are stacked against you. Your success is suddenly tied to your position relative to other people. Winning is only possible in one scenario.

If it’s a race, and you need to win to get any enjoyment, then don’t bother running. Because as soon as you lose, you’re not getting enjoyment of the process and then you’re not a runner – you’re a slave to the race.

You win when you enjoy the race.

You win when you enjoy the act of running. The acceleration, the jostle, the distance, the wall, the outcome, the losses.

If you love the race, then sometimes you might also be the actual best. But even if you’re not, you’ll still be winning.