Tennis legend Chris Evert said that the high of winning Wimbledon lasted about a week. Tyson Fury woke up the next morning after knocking out World Champion Wladimir Klitschko and felt only a ‘void’. Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz crashed mentally after winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics as he realized the effects of winning were not lasting; he struggled to recreate a life after swimming. These stories clash uncomfortably with traditional views of the glories of winning. But it’s worth looking at what we normally turn away from or brush under the carpet in order to understand more about those occasions when winning doesn’t actually bring lasting, meaningful success. It is only by considering the light and the shade of what winning can mean in reality that we might redefine success in a way that lasts longer than a moment crossing the line in a race and start to pursue ambitions that could go far beyond simply coming first.
These stories exist beyond sport too. ‘Successful’ business leaders hit their targets yet suffer from burnout or depression, and struggle with low engagement levels across their organisations, regardless of sector. In education, pupils leave schools with armfuls of A* grades yet find themselves ill-equipped for the modern workplace requiring creativity, collaboration and leadership. A look at the political world shows us politicians who win at the ballot box but are unable to tackle the complex, long-term issues that define our 21st century world, ranging from social inequality to climate change to public health. What is this dark side of success that can get overlooked in our desire to hail the heroes of the hour? What is the longer-term reality behind the iconic figures held up in society as role models for us all to emulate?
I like to take the longer-term view when exploring the wider stories and experiences of traditional winners. Take one of the most heroic pictures of success in history: the moon landings. What were the lives like of the heroic, pioneering astronauts beyond the moment they stepped out of their space capsule in the first moon landings? How did they feel when they returned to earth? I discovered stories of widespread depression. Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two humans to land on the moon, applied his vivid description of the view from the moon – ‘magnificent desolation’ – to his own life and personal struggles on return to earth.
I discovered that when we start to look at many of society’s ‘winners’ from a longer-term perspective, our common definition of success starts to buckle. Common images of what winning means focus almost entirely on a single moment in time: the winner on the podium, the announcement of a company’s annual profits, a legal battle won or the declaration of an electoral victory in politics. We need to start looking at the significance of these moments in the longer term. What does winning a race mean for a sportsperson over the course of their life? What is the longer-term impact of successful business results for employees, communities and society? How do A-grades prepare students for their later lives? How does electoral success translate into progress in governments tackling the key issues of our time?
When success is defined in fleeting moments, we can find it becomes disconnected from what has gone before and what is to come, from ourselves and our communities. In many cases across education, sport, business and politics, winning is defined in a temporary, short-term way that isn’t serving us well over the longer-term.
My own experiences across sport, business, diplomacy and education combined with a range of research across psychology, anthropology and organisational studies have shown me that it’s time to redefine success in ways that no longer constrain us from exploring what’s possible together over the longer-term. ‘The Long Win’ approach offers us a way to do this, based on developing greater Clarity of what matters, investing in a Constant learning mindset and prioritising human Connections in everything that we do.
The 3C’s of Clarity, Constant Learning and Connection are not short-term activities or KPIs to be ticked off or project-managed. They are open-ended and ongoing themes to help us develop how we think about the world, see ourselves within it, and interact with each other. The 3Cs keep us on track to grow our mindsets and mental models, change and adapt our behaviours as we develop, and build more meaningful relationships to create opportunities to work together to achieve what we cannot achieve alone. Defining success in infinite rather than finite terms, with broader success criteria, a focus on meaning, experiences and relationships stimulates us to think, behave and connect with others in different and lasting ways.
The first C of Clarity requires us to think about what really matters to us, about what would bring meaning to our lives rather than what might bring a list of achievements or accolades. It is an emergent and dynamic process of thinking, listening, understanding and developing meaning in our lives without a fixed endpoint. Clarifying what matters challenges us to think beyond short-lived outcomes of sporting results, annual business targets or school exams. Even activities that seem innately characterized by a one-off ‘win or lose’ moment such as the Olympics, still lack meaning and fulfilment if not related to something that matters beyond that moment.
In sport, it’s about reconnecting medals to the meaning of an elite sporting journey and establishing why medals matter beyond the podium. What do they represent of lasting value beyond a shiny round piece of metal? What else does an athlete gain alongside those medals that may be of greater value over time? This requires an athlete to consider the impact that they have on themselves and those around them in their pursuit of sporting excellence, and how it might prepare them for a life after full-time sport – something that is often woefully neglected when chasing sporting wins and leads to high rates of mental health issues and breakdown as athletes try to transition out of their sporting careers. By facing these broader questions during their competitive lives, athletes can manage the inevitable ups and downs of elite sport better as well as set themselves up for life after retirement from top level competition.
In US sport, there are more examples and a stronger tradition of social responsibility as part of an athlete’s identity. Muhammad Ali was a leader in this field, and the Muhammad Ali Centre in Houston continues to do inspirational work in the community based on the principles that guided his journey – not the principles of how to knock out an opponent! US footballer Megan Rapinoe has taken up the role prominently in recent times in the US, with Marcus Rashford reaching new heights in athlete social responsibility through challenging the UK government to address the issue of school meals for the disadvantaged during the pandemic and beyond. Sport at a grassroots level is often seen to be connected with social change, but definitions of success for elite athletes have often left them isolated from the very communities they came from. Coaches urge athletes to show their dedication through a sole focus on sport to the exclusion of everything else. In anything other than the short-term, this is damaging to sporting performance as well as the mental health of the athlete, and robs them of the opportunity to create meaning in their lives that will last beyond their often short competitive sporting careers.
Research into human behaviour tested in sporting, business and military arenas amongst others, has shown that developing a sense of meaning and impact in our personal and professional lives, understanding our growing identities and sense of social responsibility fuels resilience, creativity and motivation. If we connect with meaning and purpose, then we tap into longer-term intrinsic drivers which are deeper and more durable than short-term extrinsic rewards of medals, bonuses or grades. By tapping into our intrinsic motivation, the ‘why’ that lies behind what we are pursuing and the longer-term meaning and purpose that we connect to unlocks deeper levels of energy, resilience and creativity when faced with challenges. In the world of sport, we dip into deeper wells of motivation that help us both sustain performance and overcome hurdles along the way. We move away from fear-based cultures that rely on a fear of losing, aggression towards opponents and a focus on results at all costs – all of which is much less easy to sustain, more draining of our resources, more sapping of our energy and less fulfilling.
When champions reach the top level of the podium but feel empty, a sense of anti-climax, even depression, then our pursuit of success has taken a wrong turn. Developing purpose and perspective can help re-clarify what matters and extend the timescale within which we pursue our aims and ambitions.
Over the last two decades sports psychology has changed the focus of elite sporting environments to value the ongoing performance process which is within an athlete’s control, rather than those arbitrary moments when results and rankings are determined by multiple external factors beyond an athlete’s control. The best athletes know that they need to become world-class at improving, in order to optimise their chances of winning when the competitive opportunities come. That’s the long-term route to maximise success – regardless of whether you win or lose a race, you always need to find ways to improve for the next one. Those who focus on that infinite journey of improvement are the ones who maximise their chances of winning along the way. Winning every time isn’t possible and can never be guaranteed. But improving is always possible and sits at the heart of a resilient, performance-focused mindset that isn’t thrown off course when short-term results don’t turn out as planned.
In the early part of my Olympic career, the brutal ‘winner takes all’ mentality kept us fiercely competing with each other to win the daily rankings battle. Future crewmates were seen as enemies, not as essential partners in improving performance. Daily results were the key criteria, pushing levels of exertion ever higher. Burnout was common, and our improvements hugely limited – for we could never take time to make changes that might make us go slower in the short-term whilst we refined our technique, in order to go faster in the longer-term. A culture that values improvements over short-term results sets up the opportunity for greater success. This is what the second C of Long-win Thinking is about: Constant learning.
Win or lose, there is always scope to learn, not just in terms of technical skill and expertise, but in broader ways that include self-awareness and understanding of others. Results are nearly always out of our control. In sport they depend on a range of external factors, from our competitors, to weather to umpires, and as the pandemic has shown us, there are so many aspects of life beyond our control. Wouldn’t it be more useful to consider what lasting gains you are making alongside any short-term outcomes along the way? What learning, upholding of values, personal growth and innovation is happening? These are concepts that are proven to be part of a resilient mindset, an ability to flex and grow when adversity strikes and outcomes don’t go your way. They provide an ongoing continuum within which to situate each positive or adverse event and an investment in the future, particularly in these times of fast-paced change and complex issues, where ideation and innovation are critical to sustaining success.
A Constant learning mindset draws on the age-old concept of ‘mastery’, a characteristic of many ancient cultures. Often associated with Buddhism but with a broader history, an approach of mastery provides the underpinning philosophy to martial arts which have a strong tradition of ethics and values dating back thousands of years. The combat element is combined with equal emphasis on emotional and spiritual wellbeing which applies to beginners as much as to ‘masters’. A ‘mastery’ or constant learning mindset features both a focus on the present moment and letting go of the need for outcomes. John Vincent, the Co-Founder of the restaurant chain LEON, talks about the huge influence of the Ancient Art of Wing Tsun on how he has developed his business. In his book, ‘Winning Not Fighting’, he talks about how a focus on continual learning requires us to give up desiring outcomes, which in fact enables us to achieve them faster.
In the organisational context, research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in ‘The Progress Principle’ showed that if managers want to increase joy, engagement and creativity, how crucial it is to focus on progress each day at work, rather than short-term outcomes. Amabile and Kramer set out to understand better why dismal management and poor motivation was so prevalent in the workplace. They worked through 12,000 diary entries depicting the key events in a working day, revealing what mattered in our ‘inner work lives’. The most positive event influencing people at work was ‘making progress in meaningful work… work that people care about’ and then having that progress recognized. ‘Nourishing’ relationships were also important. Not hitting targets, not stunning annual results, not being awarded a bonus. ‘Helping [people] succeed at making a difference virtually guarantees good inner work life and strong performance.’ This shows how much more effective and enjoyable the workplace would be if we could focus on ongoing progress rather than short-term outcomes. Of course, paradoxically, this does nothing to damage those short-term outcomes, quite the opposite – it really is a win-win approach to shift our focus away from winning in the short-term! But the benefits go far beyond too, shifting a focus onto values in an environment and changing the experience of all involved.
The third C of Long-Win Thinking is Connection, which prompts us to consider, review and invest in how we develop our relationships with others. This aspect of Long-win Thinking puts people and relationships above tasks and short-term outcomes. It is a reevaluation and recognition of relational gains rather than a narrow focus on material outcomes. In looking at our relationships, rather than comparing ourselves to others or trying to outdo others in a zero-sum-game approach to our personal and professional lives, we look instead to collaborate with others and invest in relationships for the long-term, building trust and prioritising cooperation in the way we approach our ambitions.
Working as a diplomat, our whole world depended on building relationships, creating alliances and reaching out across barriers and divides. We spent time understanding and investing in how we influenced. It wasn’t a short-term game. Similarly, as part of a sporting team, we would never have dreamt of competing at a global event without investing in our connections in the team beyond simply wanting to win. That wouldn’t be deep enough to develop the connections required to perform in synchronicity, react and think almost telepathically, and communicate in a word something that had been developed through thousands of communications over time. In business, charity or government, it’s hard to find a role that isn’t dependent upon multiple connections, ever increasing as our world’s interconnectivity grows. It’s also not hard to see a failure to achieve what’s possible because of a lack of meaningful relationships, able to challenge and support, see multiple perspectives and expand thinking collaboratively in the face of the complex issues we face.
The 3Cs stretch our thinking to bring a longer-term perspective to what we consider as success rather than simply checking if we have completed a number of tasks or achieved a set of short-term outcomes. Instead, we might ask: how have we made progress towards our longer-term purpose? What have we learnt that will help us over time as well as with current challenges? How have we invested in meaningful relationships? How have we built trust, supported, challenged and influenced those around us? And how might we have reached out to others not naturally in our circle but who could bring an additional perspective and value to what we do?
I have come to realise that experiences last, relationships last, stories last. You carry those around with you all the time. Medals don’t really last, they are written in a record book, you have a shiny piece of metal – but no one carries medals or record books around with them. They are on your CV, but people you encounter meet you, not your CV. Athletes have fallen into the trap of pursuing medals at all costs only to find an emptiness and metaphysical hollowness at the end of it. Stories from legends such as Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz to World Cup winning England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson to Britain’s Olympic cycling star Victoria Pendleton show a darker underbelly to the experience of what winning really looks like when you are chasing an outcome that isn’t connected to any deeper meaning in your life after that moment.
If ‘how’ you win matters - the experience, the story, the impact you have on others around you, the values, identity and approach that you take with you into whatever comes next, then we start to play a longer game and our perspective starts to shift. Once we no longer expect our self-worth and value to be justified through a short-term outcome (usually outside of our control anyway), then we start to understand that we are playing a longer game. We free ourselves up to invest in things that may not pay off quickly – deepening collaborative relationships, developing our communication, engaging in experimentation and trying new ways of doing things.
My experiences have shown that what is often held up to be winning in life, personally, socially, organisationally and globally does not always prove as positive or meaningful over the longer term. We have other choices. When I looked into how the old adage that ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ plays out, I found that if this maxim is true, then ‘the only thing’ is temporary. By freeing us up from the constraints and dangers of a short-term, narrow definition of winning, we can explore our potential together with greater ambition and possibility over the longer-term.
The first step is to challenge social norms, myths and assumptions about what success looks like. From there, we can start to clarify our purpose in a way that gives us meaning in our lives and connects with the communities and societies we live in; continue to learn and develop throughout life, exploring new ideas and constantly growing our minds; and build connections that open up collaborative ways to be the best that we can be. It’s time to redefine what winning in the 21st century could mean for all of us and embark on ‘The Long Win’ together.