What is Failure?

As I write we are in the middle of the IAAF World Championships, where a significant number of Great Britain’s athletes have come fourth.

The commentators relentlessly refer to this as the most upsetting position for an athlete – just out of the medals.

Examples are Laura Muir in the 1500m, Kyle Langford in the 800m and Callum Hawkins in the marathon.

Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake was 0.13 seconds off bronze in fourth in the 200m, after which he told BBC Sport: “I am glad to come through healthy. I feel like I have let the nation down today. I know I had the calibre to get a medal. I wanted to win. That’s all I thought about when I go out there.”

Well, I would say to Nethaneel is that he hasn’t let the nation down and that he should realise what he has achieved.

In my book, What Are Days For? I quote Tim Henman:

“There’s this perception that I am a failure … I’ve been rated this year as the fourth best player on the planet. If that’s your idea of failure, then fine.”

In his book, Slaying the Dragon, Michael Johnson talks about pressure coming from within, being a great motivator. “When I slide into the blocks, I don’t care if the whole world expects me to win. I hope they do. Because I expect to win.”

In other words, don’t worry about the nation, don’t worry about the media, but if you don’t achieve your own goals then learn from your mistakes and motivate yourself to do better next time.

Whatever happens, keep it in perspective. Stay motivated by not beating yourself up!


The Problem of Free Time

In his excellent book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states: “Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it.”

In many respects free time can breed lethargy and and create a downward spiral leading to a dissatisfaction with oneself.

We all need tips and techniques to make the most of ourselves and planning free time is one of them. Think in advance of what you could do with the time and plan for it.

It could even be having a nap. I described in my book What Are Days For? the huge benefits of napping. But you need to control it. If you have an afternoon off, for example, schedule your nap for the beginning of the period you have available. Make sure you set a timer to wake you up at the right moment rather than allowing yourself to oversleep to a point of grogginess.

If you want to watch television, how about watching that recorded programme you really liked the sound of, rather than some mind-numbing drivel that happens to be on!

One of my hobbies is card magic. It is much easier for me to get going if I have a clear table with just a pack or two of cards on top than if there is clutter all over the table. It might only take two minutes to clear the clutter, but it is a deceptively hard obstacle.

Take control of your free time!




There is an excellent column in The Spectator this week by Rory Sutherland in which he talks about ‘satisficing’. He argues the case for seeking a pretty good solution rather than trying to maximise the outcome and risk disaster.

Sutherland came up with an enjoyable analogy comparing archery where you always go for the bull and darts where if you are not a strong thrower you are best aiming at the south-western area of the board.

Another analogy might be Deal or No Deal. Some people might base their strategy purely on the odds. However if the banker offers £30,000, when the real probabilities suggest you should hold out for £50,000 it might well be the most rational decision to take the £30,000, whether it be because you couldn’t handle the downside, however unlikely, of being left with nothing, or whether you have established that the marginal benefit from the extra £20,000 is much less than the benefit felt from the initial £30,000.

In my book, What Are Days For, I write about the dangers of perfectionism, particularly in regard to procrastination. In his article, Rory Sutherland neatly reminds us of other potential downsides of aiming for the top.


How To Stay On Top

The athlete Maurice Greene came up with a great quote, “To be number one, you must train like you are number two.”

Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov developed this theme.

Not many of us are world champions, but we can learn from their attitude. What Greene and Kasparov shared was a desire to improve that fueled their ability to apply hard work and, in particular, examine their mistakes.

Now, it’s quite possible we don’t feel it is worth the time and effort! However if we do think its worth investing in ourselves in this way, then, no matter, what the field and the level of ability, one of the best energy-efficient ways to find improvement is to examine our mistakes.

World Champions were Beginners Once!

Yoshiharu Habu should know something about talent. He is one of the greatest shogi (Japanese chess) players of all time. Let us consider what he had to say about talent:

“”If you are guaranteed to succeed by challenging yourself to achieve something, no doubt anyone would do it. But persisting with the same passion, energy and motivation somewhere where there is no guarantee of success – is extremely difficult, and this is what I believe talent to be.”

I would slightly disagree with the definition he arrives at. Instead I would position the attitude he describes as making the most of talent.

The point, nevertheless, is well made. For example, non-native speakers who end up learning a language fluently – at one point in their lives did not know a word. They needed motivation and determination to get to their level of proficiency.

Athletes who go on to achieve greatness had to start from scratch. What separates them from the rest of us is adding the application to the talent.

Josh Waitkin, whom I cite in my book, What Are Days For? puts it well:

” …successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean very much more than the immediate trophies and glories. In the long run painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins … the real challenge is to stay in range of this long-term perspective when you are under fire and hurting in the middle of the war. This maybe our biggest hurdle is at the core of the art of learning.”

It is very unlikely that the path to success will be a smooth one. We all need to examine how we react to adversity.

Some of the Outtakes

My initial drafts of What Are Days For? were much longer than the final published book. I wanted to keep the content crisp and focused.

It meant that a lot of good material ended up on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting-room floor, but the fortunate thing is that unlike, for example, documentaries, where a mass of good quality footage will simply never see the light of day because it was never used in the final cut, with the edits from the printed word they can still be easily discovered for later use.

In this blog, I will occasionally tap into the resource of the text that I have edited out. Importantly the text didn’t appear not for quality reasons but simply because it didn’t fit into my vision for What Are Days For?

For example, these two quotes:

Alan Lakein: “Planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now.”

Morihei Ueshiba: “I do not think badly of others when they treat me unkindly. Rather, I feel gratitude towards them for giving me the opportunity to train myself to handle adversity. “

I think they both have merit and they also fit into one of my pet themes, that of – even if you don’t agree with it, you get something from considering it.

I feel sympathy, for example, with Ueshiba’s quote, but I also feel it’s stated as if you can turn that sort of gratitude on like a tap. I know many of us would struggle with that. Nevertheless, if the thought behind the quote can work its way into me through a steady osmosis then that would be great. By contemplating texts such as these, it makes it more likely that their sentiments will pervade my everyday life.