How to Win a Gold Medal
One of the chapters I learned the most from researching is “Find Your Thing,” about how luck is required to achieve world-class athletic expertise, such as winning a gold medal. (I wrote it, selfishly, to learn how to get better at CrossFit.)
Outliers popularized the idea that expertise takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But because of the nature of sports—20,000 hours of practice wouldn’t get me to the NBA—genes obviously play a huge role. So playing the right sport is crucial.
Winning a gold medal requires you to be in the peak physical condition of your life, typically in your early 20s. Yes, there’s actually a window, and some sports are more forgiving than others, but both your skill and physical condition have to be at their peak. So those thousands of hours of practice need to happen before you’ve reached this window.
You have to want to practice for thousands and thousands of hours, a commitment that comes at the expense of doing anything else with that time, like having a normal life.
Have you ever seen an Olympian whose training solely consisted of group classes at the YMCA? Nope. You need to shell out lots of money for coaching, equipment, and practice time.
The components required for any sport or skill are a complex mix: strength, flexibility, coordination, and executing all of the insanely difficult moves that take years of practice; everything has to come together.
On the right are two possible models of achieving high-level performance: the top shows a fairly steady upwards trajectory, while the bottom one shows a late bloomer whose skills took off after improving a few key components.
What if you would have been an international-level late bloomer, but never found out because you gave up early?
What if someone else stuck with it, only to discover that their genes were good enough for a regional or national performance, but not the international level?
Margins of victory are tiny—fractions of seconds, microscopic distances, a small bit of weight—so on game day, everything has to go right: no tiny problems with equipment, conditions, lanes. No crashing, false starts, or fumbling. Nothing less than your lifetime best performance will suffice, which also means that you have to have a world-class level of mental toughness, “the essential blend of personality characteristics that enables performers to excel in achievement-based contexts.”
You can work on mental skills like lowering your competitive trait anxiety, ability to focus, but:
The one trick to winning a gold medal is that absolutely everything throughout your athletic career has to go right.
Genes? Practice? How much does the right equipment factor in? How competitive is the overall field that year? Was your greatest rival performing well or having a bad day?
Winning requires everything to go right.
In fact, everything has to go right to reach great success in any field.
To be a best-selling musician like Taylor Swift, you need a great voice, an unstoppable work ethic, connections, looks, mental toughness, self-control, long-term dedication, energy, and social support. You need everything beyond your control to go right: timing, attention by the press, adoring fans.
If you’re a startup that wants to be the next Facebook? You need a great idea with impeccable execution that comes along at just the right time. You need to grow: hire the right people, and have money to always stay functional and operational while attracting and retaining users. You need to overcome every single obstacle threatening growth along the way: legal issues, technical problems, bad hires, lack of users.
Success in any industry looks like this. You have to do everything.
How do you know if you’re the equivalent of an artistic or entrepreneurial late bloomer, and just have a few kinks to iron out before things business take off?
The catch is that when some of these factors are outside of your control, you never know if you’re ever going to reach your goals or become as successful as you want to be. The people who ultimately get there are the ones who invest resources towards getting to the top, and simply keep going.
I used to think that there was a magic level where people started getting things handed to them, and things became easy. The easy level does not exist; instead, different things become challenging. Tired of juggling household chores? When you make enough money to outsource them, something else will come along: you have to hire a new employee, or improve your accounting skills. Tired of making money by writing individual articles? Once you win an award and become eligible for grant money, you have to write lengthy grant proposals. Once you get hired by a magazine as a full-time writer, you still have to find and pitch ideas to your editor. Are you tired of getting overlooked for your ability to handle clients? Once your new talents get recognized, you get more responsibilities and need to manage your time better.
Those ahead of you in any competitive field requiring constant effort may have overcome whatever difficulty you currently face, but by focusing on that one advantage, you might think they’re playing on an easy level. You’re wrong.
Once you overcome your current difficulties, the stakes will become higher; the next level will contain new challenges that you can’t currently see.
My advice? Keep going.