I still remember watching him, and his expression of utter disbelief.
He crossed the finish line, arms in the air saluting a roaring crowd who were laughing just as much as they were cheering. Gold for Australia!
Gold medals are not easy to come by, but Steve Bradbury won one skating at the 2002 Winter Olympic games against all odds.
His time was far from fast, and by his own admission he was the slowest athlete on the ice that day.
Despite this, he is now immortalised as an Olympic Gold medallist.
In preparing his strategy, Bradbury kept it simple. He felt that if he could just skate ‘what I thought was my best’, he could give himself a chance.
So he chose a line which allowed him to skate uninterrupted and reach his rhythm sooner than might otherwise be possible.
On the last lap Bradbury found himself well behind the tight group of competitors who were all jostling for prime position coming out of the final turn.
From this seemingly hopeless position he won the race and claimed victory for himself and for his country, and he did it with a smile on his face.
On the last lap of the race, the tight group of skaters jostling for first position all crashed literally metres from the finish line.
As they scrambled to get up and dive across the line they watched the astonished Steve Bradbury skate past them to claim the Gold medal.
Most people watching (including me) thought Bradbury got lucky, but over my time I have come to see that there is more to this scenario than meets the eye.
If we look broader and deeper, Bradbury’s ‘lucky break’ can be incredibly instructive for those of us looking to achieve excellence in our own careers.
Rick Rubin is the Mr Miyagi of the Music world. The list of music stars he has helped discover their brilliance is worth Googling. Do it, it’s amazing.
While being interviewed on my favourite podcast ‘The Tim Ferris Show’ Rubin cited the need to compete as one of the most destructive forces to excellence.
His reasoning is that the more we look outside of ourselves for a yardstick, the less we perceive our own progress and the harder it is to build momentum.
I tend to agree.
The very best athletes I have worked with never compete with others, this requires motivation (unreliable) and the result is usually misery.Champions compete with themselves, this requires inspiration (undeniable) and the result is mastery.
Michael Jordan was once asked by a journalist how he felt about the fact that Clyde Drexler was a superior three point shooter than he was.
His response was; ‘Clyde is better than I choose to be’.
Jordan knew that no one aspect of his game made him great, it was how he relentlessly applied himself to evolving his entire game.
Steve Bradbury wasn’t concerned with the other athletes; his focus was purely on skating his best as compared to himself.
As those ahead of him got closer to the finish line their focus shifted from skating their best to beating or blocking others from winning.
Ultimately it was this shift in focus that caused the crash and cost every one of them their shot at Olympic Gold.
Given the seemingly small probability of winning Olympic Gold by default, it can be quite easy to think that winning in this way purely comes down to luck.
This ‘paradox of competition’ is not just prominent in sport and the arts, it can also be observed in the world of business.
In 2010 Steve Jobs of Apple was busy rebuilding the company that he founded by focusing on creating great products and a brilliant business model.
He had a point to prove.
Ten years earlier he had been ousted from Apple by John Scully, the CEO he appointed to take his company to the next level.
During his exile, Apple had floundered, lost its market share and its brand had suffered significantly.
Jobs learned much in his time away from Apple, At Next Computer he had all the power and no obligation to listen to anyone. No board, no CEO. His way.
He realised that without ideas, enthusiasm and experience of other people with alternative skillsets & perspectives, results were seldom as fruitful.
Jobs bought Pixar in 1986, and it was at Pixar he learned from Ed Katmull what great leadership looked like, and how to create a culture of excellence.
When Apple’s board begged him to return almost a decade after it fired him, he was ready to make good on his past mistakes and return Apple to glory.
Once Jobs returned to Apple he was so obsessed with his task that he barely noticed the all out war between Google and Microsoft.
Larry Page and Bill Gates were striving to win the battle of supremacy for the Internet across a range of products and industries.
The battle continued over the next three years while Jobs diligently turned Apple into the worlds most valuable company, surpassing both.
In January 2013 Apple was worth 500 Billion dollars, compared to a combined value of 437 Billion for both Google and Microsoft combined.
Just three years earlier both companies were more valuable than Apple. Jobs had pulled a ‘Bradbury’ without even seeming to notice.
Clearly there is a pattern here, compete with others – get distracted, fall over and fail. Compete with self – improve, evolve and win.
But most of us still instinctively compete with others.
We can see evidence of the instinct to compare and compete when we look at the market for weight loss.
Every year the masses jump onto the latest fitness fad, be it a diet (paleo) piece of equipment (skins) or method (crossfit) that ‘finally is the answer’
Research has shown time and again, the best way to lose weight is to keep a food and exercise journal.
Why? Because it improves your awareness of day-to-day decisions and forces you to reflect on feedback you are otherwise ignoring.
Yet most of us continue to look outside of ourselves for answers, spending thousands competing to attain the image of ‘fitness’ we are fed by the media.
Competing and comparing with others is a flawed strategy if our goal is personal excellence and sustained success.
It is clear that regardless of industry, the elite don’t compete with others; they innovate by changing the game to play on their terms and to their strengths.
But most of us do the opposite, competing with others and continually changing the game on ourselves, playing the game on others terms and ignoring our strengths.
From a young age we are conditioned to compete with others.
We are constantly pitted against one another: for better marks at school, better places at universities, better jobs & more favour from the boss and it goes on.
The world constantly tells us; win by beating others, and at a fundamental level that is not wrong. But the simplicity of this message can be misguiding.
The external focus that comes with a competitive mindset pointed toward anyone other than ourselves leads to a more reactive and inconsistent approach.
Greatness is rarely achieved through reactive, emotional changes of course. This only ever leads to loss of motivation, confusion, and disillusionment.
Champions are Self-Centered.
We are socialised perceive self-centeredness as a vice: something to be avoided or uprooted from our character if we admit its existence.
This may be because we confuse self-centeredness with selfishness.
Self-Centeredness is not the same as selfishness; the self-centred person is someone who stays centred in themselves.
The selfish person lacks concern for others. There is a big difference. Self-centeredness is a virtue when understood in this way.
The key to personal excellence and Mastery is to remember Competitors focus on beating each other, Champions focus on beating themselves.