Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Five Lessons The Olympics Can Teach You About The Corporate World

Five Lessons From The Olympics for Your Worklife

Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge by Jon Curnow via Flickr cc

The Corporation: The Real American Idol Chapter 3 Part 2

Jordyn Wieber, after training for most of her life, and getting the fourth best score in the overall gymnastics competition, is not able to compete in the final.  I can hardly stand it.  I am a huge sports fan, and I am fascinated by the psychological aspects of the game – who can outperform under pressure, and who will choke?  So when I heard that Wieber was out, I watched the replay waiting for the choke that never came.

She made a few mistakes, but she was good.  And now she is out, because the rules say that no country can have more than two competitors in the final.  There has been a lot said about coaching and scoring decisions that may have cost her, but her coach, John Geddert, said it best.

She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating. She has waited her entire career for this. She is happy for her teammates and disappointed that she doesn’t get (to) move on.”

Wieber’s failure to advance has lessons for those of us navigating a career in the corporate world.

Lesson 1: There are only so many spots at the top

Weiber’s performance was great – fourth overall, but the rules allow only two from a given country.  The same holds true in the corporate world.  There are fewer and fewer positions at higher levels in the company, especially in management.  And being good is not enough.

Lesson 2: No everyone who is worthy gets to move up

There were 98 women who qualified to compete in gymnastics in London, most of whom knew ahead of time that they had little chance to make the final 24, much less compete for a medal.  But these women were the best in their respective countries, and trained hard to get where they were.  Jordyn Wieber was not the only girl who scored well enough to make the final round but was prevented because two teammates scored better.    Three others also missed the finals because they were third in their country:  Anastasia Grishina (RUS, 12th place); Jennifer Pinches (GBR, 21st place); Yao Jinnan (CHN, 22nd place).  These four women need to abide by an arbitrary set of rules.

Lesson 3: The Rules are not designed with you in mind

The olympic organizers put together a set of rules that they thought would give the best overall event. And while Americans in particular will miss Weiber, the event will go on.  But the consequences for Weiber are potentially huge, perhaps millions of dollars in lost endorsements over the next few years.  Tim Daggett said it was inconceivable that Weiber would not be in the finals, especially when she made no major errors.  In my career, it was inconceivable to some people that I would be laid off, given everything I had accomplished at the company,  But I was.  (I didn’t really mind, and had a new job within weeks, but that is a story for another day.)

Lesson 4: Sometimes small things outside your control can make a big difference

Was Wieber underscored on the floor and beam as some have suggested?  Did the coaches put her at a disadvantage by not having her go last?  Maybe, probably.  If she hadn’t made a few small mistakes, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  But this time maybe it did.  Unfortunately, that is the way things go sometimes.  Sometimes at work, a minor mistake comes at exactly the wrong time.  The corporate world can be  a “what have you don’t for me lately” place.  After years of hard work, if the mistake happens just when that rare window of opportunity opens, it can cost.

Lesson 5: Sacrifice is a certainty, victory is a rarity.

For those who choose to work extreme hours, sacrifice of family time is a certainty.   For an Olympic athlete, the sacrifice brings the opportunity for greatness. But there can be only one Olympic champion.  As I wrote earlier, the experience of being there is a victory for most.  (And with 150,000 condoms distributed in the Olympic Village, being there seems to be plenty of rewards for showing up.)

When I first started working at Affymetrix, everyone kept congratulating me for being hired, as if it was privilege to be there.  And given how hot the company was at the time, I can understand where that was coming from.  It was perceived as an opportunity for greatness.  By business standards, I certainly won the Gold a few years later when my product had a monster year.  I got big accolades  and a very big bonus.  I had sacrificed big, and won big.  But unlike the Olympics, the competition did not end.  There were more goals, more numbers to make, and a perceived need for more sacrifice.

There was a great little segment on the broadcast tonight about Missy Franklin, seventeen year old swimmer whose family did not move or hire a famous coach.  She even stayed on her high school swim team.  Sacrifice?  I’m sure there was plenty.  But it was within boundaries her family set, and not according to standards suggested by other people.

The outcome?  She won the Gold in the 100 backstroke.

You might also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, the first post in my blog book Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life.

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