Thinking Outloud: Audacity, not Austerity

As a ten-year old boy, I was inspired after watching the legendary swimmer Mark Spitz win a record-breaking haul of gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and as we countdown to London 2012, the concept of Personal Best is in my mind, a peak level of performance achieved when it really matters.

Carl Lewis – 20 Olympic and World Championship medals (18 gold) – is one of those outstanding individuals I think about with regard to Personal Best. He competed at the pinnacle of world standards for nearly 20 years. How do you sustain high performance and not rest on your laurels? He’s one athlete I have long admired, but in the context of achieving something remarkable, there are two other top performers I’ve always admired.

Bob Beamon achieved a distance of 29ft 2 in in the Olympics long jump final in Mexico in 1968. Take a look at some of the photographs that capture him being catapulted through the air. It was a feat, a legend that Beamon would never repeat again, one of those elusive split seconds when it all comes together. In this case, his run-up (he was a sprinter by trade) was fantastically fast, the take-off perfect to a millimetre, the height prodigious and the flight just seemed to go on forever. When he eventually came back down to earth it was as the record breaking Olympic champion. He landed with such a thud that he bounced out of the pit all together.

The world record was jointly held by Ralph Boston of the USA and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of Russia, at 27ft 4 in. What always made me smile was that the officials had to search out an old fashioned steel tape measure because the leap had surpassed their electronic marker’s capabilities. So overwhelmed was Beamon that his legs gave way and he sank to the floor with a cataleptic seizure brought on by emotional shock.

Beamon, aged 22 from New York, was a good athlete. He had won 22 of his last 23 meetings but was somewhat hit-or-miss down the runway, prone to foul jumping. He had been without a coach for four months leading up to the Olympics because he’d been suspended for refusing to compete at a university event in the US as a protest against racial policies. So he wasn’t the favourite for the event, and he confesses, if it wasn’t for some advice from Ralph Boston giving him a hint on how to handle his errant jumping, he may not have survived the qualifying rounds.

Having qualified, Beamon then waited for his first jump. At the time, Beamon’s jump was hailed as the greatest athletic achievement of all time. Look at the figures. Since Jesse Owens record-breaking jump of 26ft 8 in in 1935, the world record had progressed 8in. in 33 years. At Mexico, Beamon added another 21in – nearly two feet. Beamon’s record stood for 23 years until Mike Powell edged it in 1991 by 2 inches, leaping 29ft 4½ in. This world record still stands, the fourth person since 1900 to hold the record for over 20 years. But Beamon’s colossal jump was his personal best, after this monumental moment in his life he never jumped farther than 26ft 11in.

From the long jump, to the high jump. Harold Osborn won the Olympic high jump in 1924 with success at the record height of 6ft 6in – that’s jumping over me, which is quite ridiculous – but when you look at the black and white photographs of the old technique it looks really old fashioned. That’s not to say that Dick Fosbury’s way, unveiled 44 years later was any safer, the minor disadvantage of the high-jump technique that we have come to know as the Fosbury Flop was that you landed on the back of your neck.

Fosbury’s personal best was a eureka moment of innovation that changed the high-jump event forever. As a student in physics and engineering, he had concluded that the customary ‘straddle’ or ‘western roll’ – when the whole body was more or less horizontal above the bar – was not the most efficient ergonomic way of getting over the bar.

He deduced that it was better to clear the bar backwards, rolling in an arc, with the head and feet vertically below the hips at the peak of the arc on opposite sides of the bar. Don’t ask me how he thought of that, let alone envisage himself doing it, but it was good enough that Fosbury understood what he was doing. He worked out that by operating along the rolling arc, it was possible for the jumper to keep the body’s centre of gravity below, rather than above the height of the bar. Even I can see that’s a good thing, but I’ll just stand and watch thank you. Incidentally, the technique got its label from a journalist who observed Fosbury was like a fish flopping in a boat.

All of this, like Beamon, came together in the Mexico games of 1968. In the Olympic final, competing against Ed Caruthers from the US and Valentin Gavrilov of Russia, the height of the bar was raised to 7ft 4in, a new Olympic record. Caruthers and Gavrilov failed three times, Fosbury twice, but at the third and final attempt he pulled off a personal – and world – best.

Another person who evidences the focus of personal best is Steve Jobs, and I’ve recently finished reading his biography by Walter Isaacson. It’s a well-written book and I enjoyed reading it. I learned many interesting things from the book, but here I’d like to focus on just one trait of Steve Jobs that pretty much describes his life: intensity. Time and again, the book describes how intense Jobs was in whatever he did. When he thought that something was worth doing, he would throw his entire being into it. He would take it further than what other people would. In the words of one person who knew him, he would carry it to the extreme.

One example was his approach to product development, where his intensity took the form of perfectionism. He simply didn’t tolerate any flaw. He would insist that everything must be done perfectly. For instance, when developing the first Mac he asked the on-off button to be redesigned again and again. The designers protested, but Jobs said that it’s important to do things right. Intensity is good; it can help you achieve things that are impossible otherwise, so it is an important factor in seeking that personal best. Here are a few things I learn about intensity from Steve Jobs:

Belief You can’t be intense on something you don’t believe in. Jobs focused on building great products above everything else, he always worked on something he believed in, that’s why he was able to do it intensely. You need to believe in yourself that you can achieve it, and your path to that success. Once you’re convinced you can do it, nothing is impossible. Belief is the ‘think and feel’ part of personal best, once you find something you believe in, throw your heart and soul into it.

Action Nothing moves until you do something. Believing alone is not going to achieve anything, it must be followed up with concrete action. Jobs shows time and again that when you act upon what you believe, there is focus, and there is energy. That energy propels you to greater heights. Action is the ‘hands and legs’ part of the critical success factors to personal best, it is the ‘do’ part of it.

Focus Avoid distractions, your energy is limited, you can’t do too many things. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Jobs repeatedly talked about the importance of focus. When he became CEO he dropped many projects that he thought were distracting, he focused the company’s energy on just a handful of key products. That turned out to be the right decision. Focus is the ‘get ready, get set, go’ step in attaining your personal best.

Keep it balanced Being intense is good, but being too intense is bad. Jobs tended to fall on the extreme side of it and as a result he hurt some people and his reputation as an innovator is edged with an autocratic and sometime blunt, unfeeling communication style. I don’t think that’s good. While you need to be intense, you should also keep it balanced. Don’t be too intense on something that you sacrifice the other areas of your life (for example, your relationships). Keep it balanced is the ‘reflect, adjust, refine’ element to your personal best activity.

Intensity is the driver behind the extraordinary achievements of Beamon, Fosbury and Jobs. Intensity sharpens our focus and when you are focused, you don’t see distractions (even though they exist) and get job done effectively. Aligned to this, their mental toughness and persistence kept them going, and I’m minded by this quote from Calvin Coolidge:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Belief, Action, Focus, Balance – and Persistence. Try to make everyday your Olympics final, and you’ll leap long, jump high and with inherent intensity, achieve that personal best. My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment. One personal best is just the stepping-stone to the next one, and in these current times of maudlin and mawkish thinking, it’s time for audacity, not austerity.