Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Success is Failing a Little Less

At bottom, all success is failure. In sports, even a world-record breaking, gold medal winning performance against a stacked field is a failure to go faster still. In business, the most innovative and successful product could have been even more so. In life, you could always have done better. If this were not true, no progress would ever occur anymore: if nobody could go faster than Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint, nobody would bother trying.

That sounds pretty bleak. But if you have been on the road for a while, perhaps you realise something: almost every important success came with a bunch of times of falling short of that win. So if we are honest with ourselves, the path to success is pretty bleak anyway.

Often it is hard to quantify how well or badly we do, but one benefit of swimming is how reliably merciless the clock is in doing it for me. After touching the wall at the end of the race I can always look up to see what time I did. At the end of the day the difference between a successful swim and an unsuccessful is entirely in my head: did I achieve what I wanted, the bar I set for myself? If not, it was a failure. Even a personal best could be a failure if it was not as good as I wanted.

But a personal best, even if it is below what I wanted, is still better than last time. I failed a little less. Let me put it in a slightly geeky way: nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). Therefore, the best upper limit for how fast someone can swim the 100m breaststroke is that nobody will ever exceed the speed of light (which means a time of about 333 nanoseconds, which is way below the 0.01 second accuracy of swimming clocks). So in a sense, anything more than that fastest time possible is a failure.

Not getting to the speed of light in breaststroke is probably something you can be forgiven for, but such an insane "goal" highlights the point: standards are artificial. Real success is falling short a little less than before.

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