Why Second Place Might be Good Enough… for now.

A Silicon Valley mantra is “Fail early, fail often.” But what if you are in it for the long run? What if you’ve sunk weeks, months or years of effort into a venture going for the proverbial gold and find yourself getting silver instead?

I had the honor and pleasure of listening Kami Craig relating the story of her first two Olympic medals to a room full of competitive swimmers on Maui. None of the 8-12 year olds in the room (nor I for that matter) were up to speed on the story of Kami’s olympic journey.

She took us through the four years that led to the final effort at the Olympic games at a high level. More details as the games started: rolling in as the Gold medal favorites, handing crushing defeats to Netherlands during pre-event scrimmages, beating team after team as planned, and then pairing up against the Netherlands for the final game that would decide the medal.

At this point the story starts to turn sour… The coach hands off the pre-game pep talk to someone else – unexpectedly, and for the first time during the games, players are not ‘feeling right’ (something that makes a difference at ultra-athlete levels), and the bronze medal contest goes into overtime and the team is uncertain what to do – warm up again, or wait? After half the team gets back in the pool and the other half sits facing the competing team, the game gets off to a rough start for the US team as they are quickly down 4-0. They claw back to 9-8 with 20 seconds to go. After a literal last minute time out, Kami unexpectedly thrown in (she was second string) and is forced by heavy defense to quickly pass the ball to better positioned team-mates. Two attempts on goal that would have brought the game to overtime failed and the US team went home with silver.

While coming in second in a global sports competition is not at all shabby, there is serious heartbreak in ‘failing’ at a goal that you’d put in four years of effort towards. Kami and her team mates had put in supreme effort, training 6 hours a day for four years in hopes of making the team, a final decision that was held until the last month prior to the Olympic event.

Remarkably, Kami credits her silver medal win for the subsequent gold medal in 2012 in London. All too often we forget the importance of learning from failure. While in hindsight, winning silver at the Olympics was a success, but in the moment, it was a “punch to the chest,” tears and disappointment.

The key piece of learning that came out of the loss in this particular instance was the importance of having a game plan not just for when things were going well, but also having contingency plans in place. The team was clearly potential gold medal quality, as were many of the teams in attendance. What happened to the USA team was a series of, not unexpected, anomalies that threw off their game – effectively breaking the finely tuned machine.

The following year was similar up to the point of the final game. Again the bronze game went into overtime, but this time Team USA was ready. The opposing team from Spain went through the same fracture from uncertainty as the US team had previously. Half the team went back in the pool to warm up, the other half stayed on the bench. In the pool, the US team took an early lead and kept it, finally winning the first gold medal for the US Women’s Water Polo team — ever.

Kami credits having won silver, rather than gold, with building her determination to come back to help win the gold. Determination that lasted the four years of hard work and lasted another four to a third olympic appearance and second gold medal.

As we go through life, we all too often push our defeats, our failures, away into dark corners. We may, non critically, replay them in our mind in a way that increases or extends the discomfort and misery felt immediately after the loss. This is, however, partially a matter of mindset. If you are playing to win or lose, a loss is indeed failure.

If you rather play to be as good as you can be, a subtle shift, you can treat each loss as an opportunity for improvement. You will still likely feel a bit of a sting, but it may not be as deep. More importantly, you can use that sting to drive you forward. Look at why the loss happened and consider what actions to take to make sure a similar loss does not happen again.