thoughts — The idea of champions
Writing this down to reflect upon my own tendencies, on how the world divides its attention and puts spotlight on, and how society operates like a zero-sum game.
I wanted to talk about the idea of champions, and not so much of the champion itself. We can fantasize about the idea of champions way more than what it actually takes to be a champion. To start off, the champion or winner definitely deserves all of her or his glory, attention, limelight and credits where their hard work is finally paid off. People could take a bit of luck and years to be in that position to overcome their own difficulties and struggles before finally attaining that level of breakthrough, that level of proficiency. Celebrate and rejoice! For it is by no means an easy feat to achieve any of that. Learn from their successes, failures and don’t be a sulker for this recognition.
But, and in this post I wanted to talk more about our heart’s tendencies to over-glorify champions and incline towards only-champions, where the first or second runner-up, the others is not what we become interested in. I define others here simply as those who are not the de facto “winner”. I write this not in any spite, or cynicism over celebrating superstars or geniuses but more of a nudge to myself too, to shift and train ourselves to be interested in others, in their stories, in their shared struggles and learn from them. We don’t only learn from champions.
Maybe it’s just a streak in me, but I always found dark horses interesting. A dark horse, according to Oxford Dictionary and more accurately for this piece, is a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds. Which I thought aligns precisely, that the more we should get our hearts to be aware, to know more of others, and not just follow what tends to be easier for us to focus on — champions. Instead of these dark horses catching us off guard in future, can we train ourselves to pay attention, to understand them? In fact even learning from these dark horses, when they eventually become champions in future, allows us to build more appreciation for what they have achieved later. And the cycle continues looking at first and second runner-ups to gain perspectives..
Having our brains and attention focused on what the media highlights, the all-round winner is pretty much a piece of cake, because we’re all attracted to glorious things. This year’s Beijing Winter Olympics’ gold medallists Nathan Chen and Eileen Gu captured the world’s attention for outshining their own records, with news headlines spreading all over front-pages of their feat, including my own Instagram feed. As much as we celebrate over broken world records, I had my eyes fixed on the silver and bronze medallists. The first-runner-ups. The could-be’s. As much as there was a heave of pity, many “Ah so close!” blurts, personally I was interested in how they respond, how did they deal with the pressure, disappointment, even many more “So-close’s” in their heads that they can only writhe internally and come to terms with it? What can I learn from these people?
I wanted to grow my heart and train my eyes to look at the rest, because there’s wisdom applicable to life. Here goes.
1. One small step from the podium, already one giant step in our own journey (If you find the phrase familiar).
It’s an inch towards the next-level podium steps, so close, could be even just milliseconds difference, or just that fraction of distance. But the point here, it’s our own race, our own journey. We should beat that next record, next feat with our own previous milestone as the benchmark. Leave the competitive world-class professionals race out, I’m talking about the other 99% of the planet, human beings who’re just trying to lead perfectly ordinary (but can still be fun) lives. You do you.
2. We can’t run away from dark horses due to asymmetrical information, but we can choose our response in dealing with them.
The world is at the same time small yet huge, and even the world’s richest and smartest man still has insufficient information or knowledge of this world (because we’re all limited human beings who will all die one day), let alone us ordinary human beings just trying to fight our alarms and get out of bed. So instead of grappling with our lack of information, of wanting to be on-top-of-everything, let us come to terms with the inevitability of surprises, of dark horses because we all will have caught-off-guard moments, whether in relationships, dealing with people, work, stocks, pandemics and war.
And after we come to accept that, embrace the freeing! choice! that we can choose how to respond to them. We can choose how we look at first-runner-ups in a competitive game, build our empathy and what we say in encouragement to the person (and since that first-runner-up could jolly well be us), and diverting that zero-sum attitude of ours (or mine) into positive-sum teachable moments for ourselves. In choosing our response, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn more.
3. Realize that not all success is due to hard work, and not all poverty (or second-places) is due to laziness. Keep this in mind when judging people, including yourself.
Finished reading The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel recently and just second lesson-chapter in, he underscores the point of others in the story of luck and risk, where we often assume that 100% of life’s outcomes can be attributed to effort and decisions but reality doesn’t work that way. This last point is from a letter that Housel wrote to his newborn son. Extracted some parts of the chapter below because it hits the spot, but go have a read of the book (Highly recommended read by the way).
We tend to seek out these lessons by observing successes and failures and saying, “Do what she did, avoid what he did.” If we had a magic wand we would find out exactly what proportion of these outcomes were caused by actions that are repeatable, versus the role of random risk and luck that swayed those actions one way or the other. But we don’t have a magic wand. We have brains that prefer easy answers without much appetite for nuance. So identifying the traits we should emulate or avoid can be agonizingly hard.
Luck and risk are both the reality that every outcome in life is guided by forces other than individual effort. They are so similar that you can’t believe in one without equally respecting the other. If you give luck and risk their proper respect, you realize that when judging people’s financial success — both your own and others’ — it’s never as good or as bad as it seems.
Be careful who you praise and admire. Be careful who you look down upon and wish to avoid becoming. Focus less on specific individuals and case studies and more on broad patterns. You’ll get closer to actionable takeaways by looking for broad patterns of success and failure.”
Why does society treat itself as if it’s in a zero-sum game? Why do we have to draw this distinction between winners and losers..? I guess it’s somehow because our brains have a tendency to compartmentalise things, something we just can’t control, innate, which I don’t disagree. But I think there’s also something we can start putting on, start training ourselves, little by little to shift our mindsets, to quote Housel again that,
“Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems.”
So instead of having a narrow zero-sum view — that we can only learn from champions and idealize being like them — consciously pick the broader positive-sum view, of learning from the bigger picture and trends, from everyone. And who knows then, we may no longer need to idealize and actually be the real champions. Champions of our own lives.