What does it mean to be the best?

Photo of Olympic Rings in Tokyo by Ryunosuke Kikuno.

This post was originally published on the Topknot Blog on July 27th, 2021 and was authored by Claire Shorall.

The Olympics started last week and they never fail to conjure a bunch of emotions for me. I love the Games, flaws and all. It’s a rush when people are unequivocally great. It’s awe-inspiring to see what some athletes overcome. I cry during every athlete feature; heck, I get emotional during the majority of the commercials. The human spirit is palpable, and it’s clear that so much sacrifice has gone into every athlete’s achievements.
Olympians are the rare of the rare. According to the National Weather Service, a person has a 1-in-15,300 chance of getting struck by lightning in their lifetime. I just did some quick back-of-the-napkin math. With roughly 380 million Americans and just over 600 US Summer Olympians, you’re over 30x more likely to get hit with a bolt than you are to make the team.

And yet, I know them in real life. I have close friends and former teammates who have made it to the world’s biggest stage. I’ve watched from a front row seat their disciplined hard work. It’s all-encompassing, and a beyond impressive feat.

Back in the business world, the odds are also stacked against you. A quick internet search will tell you the vast majority of startups are doomed — something like 9 out of 10. Those odds look absolutely splendid in comparison to becoming an Olympian, but beg another question: In the absence of a gold medal, what does success as a startup look like?

Like the Olympians in my life, I have seen entrepreneurs I know well build incredible products, hire the best teams, raise big rounds, and have successful exits. Despite this proximity to greatness, I don’t have a clear roadmap for my own journey to global achievement. In fact, when compared to the formula for success in athletics — one I have a strong sense of despite not having the athletic prowess myself — all I am left with is doubt.

It’s a fool’s errand to use track as a metaphor for my entrepreneurial journey. There are no times to hit, no VO2 Max to measure fitness, no head-to-head races to calibrate against the competition. I am coming around to the idea that we’re all on our own journey and success will look different for everyone. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say that my competitive inner voice wished things were more clear-cut. This voice raises questions that I am scratching the surface of answering: Am I doing enough? Is this the right decision? How do I truly measure my progress? Is work-life balance even possible for the wildly ambitious?

Still, greatness in any arena is instructive. As I work through questions that only I can answer for myself, I am grateful for the lessons that I have learned and the inspiration I get from those around me, whether they’re lining up in Tokyo or sitting next to me at a coffee shop trying to get lightning to strike.

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