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Stretch for success

You can be a winner at anything – if you set the bar low enough.

You can be a winner at anything – if you set the bar low enough.

I once had a delightful lunch with cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, who among other things opined “My dear old thing, once you’ve boarded a Boeing 747 and turned left, you never want to turn right again.”

And how right he was. Reclining in a wide, comfortable sleeper berth, having meals served on something other than plastic without having to worry about where your elbows are, has infinitely more appeal than spending 12 hours spooning in a tiny cattle-class seat, feeling like a trussed chicken, wedged between Eastern European backpackers who have eschewed the rudiments of personal hygiene.

The subtext is that the sweet taste of success lingers – and it’s a taste that begs to be savoured again and again. Unfortunately, homilies and aphorisms on success are ignored if they’re delivered to us in unctuous tones by patronising parents or supercilious peers.

But there is no doubt that those who grow up with a pattern of success tend to repeat that pattern – they know what it’s like to win.

However, winning shouldn’t be made too easy. If everyone’s a winner, winning becomes the norm, not the exception. The currency is devalued, it loses its meaning and redefines itself as mediocrity – and mediocrity recognises nothing above itself.

There seems to be a disquieting trend in our society, particularly among educators, that we should protect our children from the consequences of failure. There is an “every child is a winner” syndrome that pervades the way we rear our kids and consequently we lower the bar so everyone can jump it.

I know this notion well. The pinnacle of my achievement at university was breaking the World Rocking Chair Record. For a Capping Week stunt at Canterbury University, we had scoured the book of Guinness World Records, hunting out one that didn’t involve personal danger and could be blitzed without requiring any great effort. Euphemistically speaking, the choices came down to two ‘endurance’ events, namely; sitting on a toilet or rocking in a chair. The rocking chair won.

Two of us were enlisted. Approval to proceed and scrutineering rules were duly received from the Guinness officials. The record to beat was 93 1/2 hours. We were allowed five-minute comfort stops every couple of hours. All we had to do was stay awake and keep rocking. The deal was that we would stay in a university common-room at night – with observers on hand to make sure we didn’t nod-off – and be driven around the city on the back of a truck during the day. This particular truck, an old Bedford, also doubled as a brewer’s dray and we carried a few beer kegs on board so we could slake the thirst of various capping stunt participants in different parts of town. All in all it was the dream gig for a freshman. Oh, and we also raised a few dollars for charity.

It’s amazing how long the human body can go without sleep. At the 48-hour mark we felt like zombies and wondered if we could make it, but at almost double that time – without chemical assistance – we were running on auto-pilot and felt we could have gone on longer. I had to call it a day after 94 hours because I was going to a ball. Sadly the record was never recognised because a woman in Canada rocked for 100 hours about two months later, just before the next Guinness Book was published.

The point is, you can be a winner at anything if you select an easy goal, or have low expectations. But doing something ordinary doesn’t propel you into the pantheon of the gods.

Don Dodge at Google says achieving 65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary. At many companies achieving 65% of your goals would result in getting fired. An exec at a large European financial company told me his former CEO believes that failure is not an option. Great, I thought. This means they will do whatever it takes to succeed. No, he told me. What it means is, make a mistake and you are fired. I've worked most of my career in startups where you are always pushing the envelope, taking big risks, where there are no obvious answers, and you just keep trying until you find the combination that works.

Anyone who expects to achieve 100% success has to make the task so easy that there is no risk of failure. Under this regime there is no glory.

Take it from a former World Champion.

Mike Hutcheson is a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, a director of Tangible Media, and still rocking on from the comfort of his corner office.