There are two things about the Olympic Games that I find fascinating. First, humans suddenly take an interest in obscure sports that we would otherwise care very little about. Second, columnists worldwide start an exhaustive search for Olympic analogies to apply to everyday life.
So let me get started on mine. As I was watching some Olympians succeed while others failed, I could not help but think of the barrage of athletes who felt great about achieving personal bests at the Olympics even though, relative to the pack, they failed miserably.
Ouch. That didn’t sound too nice, but hey, finishing 23rd out of 30 — whether or not you clocked your personal best — doesn’t look too nice, either.
Don’t get me wrong — I fully understand why most athletes would give the world to participate in the Olympic Games. The quadrennial event represents something unique that only a miniscule proportion of athletes can hope to ever participate in. The sacrifices, hardship and dedication required are impressive. For these reasons alone, the participants deserve praise.
That being said, unlike the Olympic Games, everyone participates in life. As a result, simply attending or being a part of the process is not exactly an accomplishment, it is a given. Nonetheless, the Olympic Games present a useful starting point for some introspection. How should the young professional live his life: always aiming for his personal best, or striving to set absolute records relative to his cohorts?
On your marks…
Before proceeding to debate the matter, consider the following: Anyone who has read any article in this column over the past four years knows that the advice herein is for professionals. If you take the time to read it, it’s likely because you seek to rapidly develop your skills, and thus advance your professional life at an accelerated pace.
You probably have a particular mindset that won’t allow you to be content with a paycheck alone. You want something more, and while you’re not quite sure what that “more” is, you know that it’s far closer to setting absolute records than contenting yourself with mere personal bests.
Lonely at the top
The world we live in is a largely monocratic one. Heads of state often wield power alone. Corporations are believed to be best run with one official leader. Are most such organizations really better off being run alone, or is this trend the product of a natural human inclination toward competition, survival and ego?
In explicitly competitive settings, it is only normal that a young professional strive for the gold. In such scenarios, the equivalent of silver and bronze medals are practically nonexistent. It’s no coincidence that after an athlete turns professional (historically, after participating in the Olympics), the silver and bronze medals are essentially eliminated and the focus shifts exclusively on gold medalists, or Champions. After all, there are no Super Bowl silver medalists or World Series bronze winners, now are there?
The business world is no different. In fact, it is much more competitive.
Rising to the top doesn’t always mean the top…
Micro vs. Macro
Should you have an all-or-nothing approach to your life? If the spoils only go to one person, would you not be setting yourself up for disappointment time and time again by doing otherwise?
Well, not necessarily. After all, we live in numerous microcosms. A microcosm is a small and representative subsystem in that it bears some similarities to its larger counterpart. In politics, not everyone wants to be President; many might, but not the majority. Most strive to be mayors, congressmen, senators, or governors. Aspiration alone is not enough, these people get to these positions through working hard and aiming to set absolute bests.
Understand your dispositions, recognize your interests, size up your strengths and weaknesses, and aim for the top of a subsystem — at the very least.
Above anything, do not spread yourself too thin. In fact, therein lies a major key challenge in any life.
I probably use the term “focus” in every single column I write. This makes me something of a hypocrite, because I lack focus. Well, sort of. I focus on one thing, really, but I do dip my toes in a dozen other things (like writing, for example) so I can hedge myself in the event that the one thing I do focus on falls apart. It always does. That’s just the way life works.
This is what everyone should do. It is called diversification, and it’s a fundamental tenet of finance and life.
Continuing the Olympic analogy, consider the following: Some gymnasts participate in the all-around finals. The men’s all-around consists of the floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. A gold medal is awarded to the winner of the all-around contest, and subsequently, numerous gold medals are handed out to contestants based on performance in specific events. When it comes to the individual sports that make up the all-around championship, none of the all-around contestants participate in all events, now do they?
On the surface, the all-around appears to rely on diversification. Yet the winner of it is guided by focus.
He handpicks an assortment of events that he deems himself to be better at than the rest. Surely these athletes would love to participate in all of the sub-events, but to do so would be foolish and go against the principle of specialization.
Uh-oh, watch out, here I go again. Regular readers of this column also know that I often quote Plato, that old philosopher from Ancient Greece. Plato was Socrates’ pupil and Aristotle’s teacher, so he was no featherweight. The Greeks, for all their intellectual firepower, lacked practical wisdom (yes, I just said that). In other words, their ideas worked wonders in theory, but were largely better suited for Alice in Wonderland than the real world.
Much of what Plato said fell in this category, but one thing that he mastered was his Principle of Specialization. Plato argued that if everyone did what he or she was best in, then society as a whole would advance more. This makes both theoretical and practical sense. If everyone wanted to be an athlete, actor or entertainer, the world as we know it would stall. There would be no carpenters, engineers, lawyers (well, I suppose we could do without them), accountants, and everyone else responsible for the more functional tasks.
What Plato should have emphasized more — and where Greek thought in general falls short once again — is that by doing what you are best at, you benefit yourself and those around you most. Plato was self-serving in his analysis of society but failed to really present this principle in a manner that would convince everyone else.
Where does happiness fit in? Find out…
Er… what about happiness?
Ah yes, happiness. Of course, you could be a great lawyer, make a lot of money and hold considerable clout, but if that makes you unhappy, then you should aim for another source of contentment. This is where you should diversify; diversification, in this case, could represent a hobby, and not necessarily another form of employment. Ideally, you should find employment that does make you happy, but that is easier said than done.
If the dissatisfaction and unhappiness over your employment is so profound that it offsets any possible ulterior satisfaction, then, for the love of Zeus, hand in your resignation letter. Go work on a beach, relax and enjoy life a little.
Relative vs. Absolute performance
That last piece of advice should only be used in extreme situations. But this column does not deal with extremes; it strives to offer practical advice for young professionals who aspire toward both professional accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Assuming you are seeking such a balance, I’ve got a tip for you: Stop being selfish and stop trying to do only the things that you love but get you nowhere!
As for those of you in the aforementioned extreme situations, well, human beings inevitably seem to drift to one extreme and get burned, only to return to some normalcy. We then get bored and edge out to the other extreme.
After working way too hard, burning the candle at both ends and then burning out too early, young men and women come to view their professional lives with disdain. Suddenly, apathy and complacency sets in, and hard work goes out.
No one is urging you to aim solely for the top. As I said, it’s lonely and cold up there. Understand and recognize that since it is hard to get there, it’s important to diversify your interests and hedge yourself; but aim for the top so that if you don’t make it, at least you can say you tried.
E-mail of the week:
Editor’s note: This reader’s e-mail has not been edited and is presented as is.
I currently work in the entertainment industry as an analyst and am considering a potential return to my old field: banking. Is this a wise move?
When one is considering a return to a sector or company, you need to remember what it was about it that made you want to leave in the first place. And what has changed about said sector and company to make you want to return?
There may also be some realities in the entertainment industry that you might lose upon returning to the banking sector — would you be okay without these?
Ask yourself these questions, and allow me to impart my opinion: Analyst work is more of a core function of banking than it is in entertainment, where other players are seen as the MVPs of the operation. As such, from a pure careerist standpoint, going back may be a wise decision.
Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com. His new book, The Confessions of Alexander The Great: 33 Lessons in Greatness, is available at www.AlexanderTheBook.com.