The Wisdom of Crowds

Last month I moved to Tennessee.  Rocky Top land.  Relocation comes with newness and firsts.  First time going to that restaurant.  First time meeting this person.  The first time running at a new park.  

New. New. New.

There are upsides and downsides to moving, of course.  But one of the grandest downsides is that interim period where wifi and television are out of reach.  Now, I could take the high road and construct noble words about the benefit of being unplugged for a time.  But I’m not going to do that.

Because if there’s a worse time to go without wifi and television than during the Summer Olympics…..well, there just isn’t.  

Midway through this year’s Olympics, I finally reconnected.  Yes, I was able to see a few events during my “dark period.”  But, mere bits and pieces when visiting someone’s home or eating out.  

As the competition unfolded, I noticed a certain picture making the rounds on social media.  The still depicted Michael Phelps focused and leading his rival, Chad LeClos, while closing in on a gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly.  Phelps experienced a renaissance of sorts in what he says was his last Olympic go around.

The picture became a rallying cry for the world of sports, competition, and even business.  LeClos (notorious for his bravado – he shadowboxed in front of Phelps prior to the race in an act some saw as cocky and disrespectful) peaked at Phelps while trailing from the next lane over.  And as Phelps went on to win, the photo became a viral meme.  A reminder of American dominance.  The kind of unquestioned, we-know-better-than-you business sense that has become a referendum of sorts these days.  Because you can’t argue with viral, right?  Likes and favorites rule the day.

And so, in this meme, captions abounded:

  •      Winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners
  •      Perfect example of what happens when you don’t worry about your own lane

America loves defeating the villain.  Count me among the group.  LeClos bested Phelps during the 2012 Olympics.  Phelps winning this time around was poetic justice.

But, in the midst of the simplistic conclusions drawn from the picture, much was forgotten.  Like the fact that LeClos is a world class swimmer who has poured countless hours into becoming an elite Olympian.  And the fact that LeClos, a gold medalist already, has reached the pinnacle of his profession and sustained competitive excellence for years.

Reducing his ability to a meme makes people feel warm, and even fuzzy.  Smug with self-satisfaction in knowing Americans just do it better.  But has the salesman, coach, or business owner who commented on LinkedIn shown the same devotion to their craft?

The only reason we know of LeClos’s “failure” is because he was on a large enough stage to be witnessed by BILLIONS.  That’s BILLIONS with a B.  You don’t get in that position without dedicating your life to the pursuit of an incredible goal.

If there is a lesson, one I’ve attempted to learn, it may be this: judging someone based on a single moment can be wildly inaccurate.

First impressions can be overrated.  Not unimportant, just misleading at times.  Le Clos may be a jerk.  I don’t know.  But if he is, he’s a hard working one.  As a gold medalist, he was superior to every swimmer on the planet in his event.

In his Man in the Arena quote, Teddy Roosevelt praises the Doer of Deeds, and those who fail while daring greatly.  He goes on to warn against the naysayers who neither know victory nor defeat.  And so, while discounting others comes easy, it can be helpful to remember that quick judgments are routinely flawed.  

It’s not the critic who counts.  No matter how witty the meme.

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