SALT LAKE CITY — Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
I think the most amazing part of the Olympics so far has been watching the losers. Maybe I relate to the experience of having things go wrong since my own life has been pretty messy, but I find myself watching closely to see how athletes handle it when their dreams fall apart.
I was glued to the TV when American figure skater Jeremy Abbott, not only made a mistake and fell, but he fell so hard he almost didn’t get up.
After lying on the ice for what seemed like forever, he slowly rose to his feet with a hand on his injured hip and the crowd went wild with applause. The fans were applauding his simple effort to rise after a terrible fall.
The whole world watched as he took a couple seconds to think about his options: quit, call for help or go on. It appeared that the cheers from the crowd helped him decide. He was going to finish, even injured, even though all his hopes for a medal were gone.
It was the most inspiring Olympic moment so far in my opinion. Because Abbott now had nothing left to lose and the pressure to be perfect was gone, he skated for love for himself and his sport and left everything he had on the ice. He was amazing!
I admire the skaters who deliver a flawless program and earn the gold medal, but I admire people like Abbott even more.
I also admired the way Shaun White handled his loss, and how Body Miller and Ted Ligety, who were also favorites, handled losing. Interestingly, their losses allowed Sandro Viletta, who was in 14th place to take the gold, showing us that sometimes life hands you an unexpected win too.
The classroom of life never fails to surprise.
Another amazing Olympic moment came watching Dario Cologna, my new favorite Olympian, who took gold in the 15km. This winner waited around for hours to congratulate and shake the hand of the guy who came in last, Roberto Carcelen, the first Peruvian to ever make it to the Winter Games. Carcelen was skiing with a broken rib and barely even made it to the finish line.
Cologna deserves more than a gold medal for being a person who honored the effort of the guy who barely made it. Carcelen deserves a standing ovation too, because he is not a loser in my book, he is a champ. He showed the world what he was made of even more than the winners did.
Sticking it out, staying in the game when you really want to quit, hanging on even though you’re in last place and embarrassed by your performance, getting back up when you fall, that takes a lot more courage than winning. It’s the man who doesn’t stay down that really deserves the applause.
We appreciate these moments because we relate. We all make mistakes and fall once in a while. Sometimes they are even big falls and we go down hard in front of everyone we know. Often we are ashamed by our stupidity and weakness and we could let these failures affect us.
We must learn three lessons from the Olympic athletes who don’t make the podium:
1. Mistake experiences don’t define you.
They don’t diminish your value as a human being nor make you unworthy of love and admiration. These experiences show up in your life for one reason: to teach you things. They are lessons in the classroom of life or locations on your journey and they probably serve you more than winning does.
Winning doesn’t give you the chance to trust that your value is infinite and absolute in the face of proof you aren’t good enough. It doesn’t put that trust to the test and require you to stretch. It is these magic moments when you get to decide to let go of your shame and claim your infinite and absolute value as a one-of-a-kind human being. If you choose to value yourself this way and you cannot be “not good enough” no matter how you perform.
2. Failure experiences are just part of the process of life.
Keep in mind that life is a classroom, not a vacation. You are to learn and grow and the process is not going to be an easy one. Most of the time, your life is not going to meet your expectations and will be disappointing.
The question for all of us when things go wrong is, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do with what you have left? This is where you get to decide who you are going to be: a quitter or a guy like Abbott, who trusts that this losing experience is his perfect journey for some reason and gets back up and keeps fighting no matter what. These moments do define you. They say more about your character than winning ever could.
3. Mistake experiences make you a better person.
Losing can make you stronger. It will also give you empathy and compassion towards the people like Carcelen who finish last, because you know what it feels like. Losing on occasion makes you less judgmental. Losing on occasion turns you into someone like Cologna, who values the guy who finished last. If you won all the time you might turn into a critic.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is the not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without err and shortcoming…who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails, while daring greatly.”
Brené Brown wrote a wonderful book on this topic called "Daring Greatly." I highly recommend it.
Today, I salute the losers of the Olympic Games who were in the arena and dared greatly. I also salute all of you whose lives have been difficult and disappointing, who have fallen, failed, stumbled and sometimes hit the ice hard. I salute you for sticking it out and staying in the game even though it was embarrassing. I salute you for using these failures to make yourself better not bitter. I salute you for getting back up and trying again.
As a writer, I also win some and lose some. Some weeks I get accolades for my brilliantly written column, other weeks I get torn apart on the comment boards for my poor advice. This has given me some interesting opportunities to experience failing and choosing how to process that.
It has, at times, tested my courage to continue. It is scary being vulnerable and facing the critics. Every time you put yourself out there in the public eye and try anything, you take a great risk. Other authors have quit writing for KSL because the negative comments became too much to bear. (Keep this is mind when you choose to criticize those who are doing things you aren’t brave enough to do.)
Rather than the strength it takes to not lose, it's the strength to stand back up after a loss that is sometimes more valuable.
I also got to experience losing on national TV when I was voted off "Good Morning America" in an advice guru contest back in 2010. After a few moments of humiliation after I didn’t make the top seven, I decided to see this experience as a win. I was voted one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country right before I was voted off. I was a winner even though I was a loser who didn’t get enough votes to continue. (Click here to read my old blog post about getting voted off GMA with some more tips on losing.)
To be honest, I have been a loser most of my life. In junior high and high school, I ran for office and tried out for cheerleader countless times, and I always lost. I lost so many times my dad started calling me Abraham Lincoln. He thought that was funny because old Abe lost eight elections, didn’t get accepted to law school, failed twice in business and spent the rest of his life in debt. He even had a nervous breakdown at least once before becoming one of the greatest presidents in our history.
The point is that losing is not the end and failing doesn’t make you less of a human being. They are just a beautiful part of the human experience called life, though not your favorite part. They give you a chance to find out what you are made of, like Abbott, and stand back up and keep going.
They give you a chance to understand you have value above and beyond your performance or appearance. They force you to let go of your need for outside validation and stop worrying what other people think of you. They give you the chance to claim your right to choose how you will see yourself. They help you to discover your love, your compassion and wisdom.
Failures also give you the chance to understand and experience the real point of living – to learn and love, and especially to learn to love yourself and others as we are in our imperfections.
Kyo Shiodaira said, “Rather than the strength it takes to not lose, it’s the strength to stand back up after a loss that is sometimes more valuable.”
When you get your turn to lose, which you surely will once in a while, remember Abbott, hold your head high, remember your value wasn’t on the line because life’s a classroom not a test. Don’t let it define you.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness." She offers free coaching calls every Tuesday night.