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!



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.