Artificial goals and real failure

As part of our English curriculum in middle school, we read a story authored by the Indian athlete, Milkha Singh. Singh, often celebrated as India’s finest athlete, who had missed a podium finish in the 400m race of the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Singh set a track record, but missed a medal in a photo finish. The story was about how he still felt terrible about that loss. It’s title was “The Pain Lingers”.

Let me illustrate a pattern here:

  • When a company sets a target of growing 25% and achieves 24%, they fail to hit their target
  • When we plan to start our own business the following year, and that doesn’t happen, our plan is said to have failed
  • The silver medalist in an Olympics event, whose performance often falls short of the winner by a hair’s breadth, often fades into obscurity even as everyone celebrates the gold medalist

In all these cases, the goal that we have set is quite arbitrary. If that company had set its target at 23%, just another number, everybody within its departments would rejoice. But not for too long – lest they miss the next year’s target.

The problem with goals tied to outcomes are that they give us an arbitrary yardstick that separates success and failure. Just examine those two words though – to be successful is great, but often fleeting. Failure is like a stain that sticks to our reputation. How these opposites make us feel isn’t balanced. Even as those goals are artificial, they failure and the pain caused by not meeting them is only very real.

Before we chase an arbitrary target, it is worth thinking about what we are signing up for – about what success as well as failure would mean for us in a life that we were gifted with a clean slate – without a single pre-defined goal.

I’m not advocating that we settle for mediocrity. But excellence isn’t just about hitting goals. Milkha Singh, who lost his parents to partitions and spent a childhood without shoes, didn’t achieve his goal of securing an Olympic medal. But he is an excellent athlete, all the same.

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