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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Olympiad

A world-weary voice reflected on past glories. He had climbed the mountain of professional sports. More than a decade of constant training. Careful nutrition. Endless rehabilitation from injury. Regular travel. The relentless panhandling for corporate sponsorships and begging for government grants. A supportive family he rarely saw in person, constantly picking him up and cheering him on from afar.

He had come close to reaching the summit.

Representing his country at successive Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

At the former, with a little bit more luck he might have placed for a medal.

At the latter, no chance. Whether the result was down to better luck or better genetics, better discipline or better drugs, there can be only one winner. In real life, there are no participation trophies.

Eventually, all good things come to an end. The relentlessness of time catches up with us all.

Generation next had arrived. Faster. Fitter. Hungrier. Stronger. Younger.

The grants and sponsors voted with their feet. Seeking a higher return on their investment.

One day he was trading stories in the athletes’ village with Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps.

The next, he was unsuccessfully selling double-glazed window units to aspirational suburban home-owners somewhere in middle England. A vaguely familiar face. Already fading from public consciousness.

Body broken, old beyond its time.

Bank account empty.

Not successful enough to join the motivational speaking circuit or appear on reality television.

Nor articulate enough to commentate.

Nor smart enough to coach.

A 35+ year-old, who was essentially an unskilled school leaver, having never held down a real job.

This was the true face of professional sports.

A steep and attritional pyramid.

Huge rewards concentrated amongst a select few winners: thehaves”.

The vast majority end up with less than nothing, making up the numbers throughout their all too brief and uneventful careers: thehave nots”.

I asked the former professional sportsman where the sweet spot was? Given that belief alone wouldn’t make you a gold medal winner, and the genetic lottery meant the majority of us (him included) were unlikely to ever beat those truly world-class competitors, where was the happy medium between effort expended and enjoyment realised?

He thought about it long and hard.

Prevaricating about how he had most enjoyed the training camps and camaraderie of being inside the professional sporting bubble, more than the big events themselves.

Rationalising that his answers would probably be different, had he been the one standing on the top step of the podium.

Eventually, he conceded it had been as a young amateur.

A big fish in a small pond. Competing against fellow amateurs. In a field strong enough to keep him honest and make him work, yet one in which he stood a fighting chance of winning.

Back when there was nothing more than pride riding on the outcome. Compete. Enjoy a drink with the other competitors after the event. Then return to the real world.

Keeping his passion as a labour of love, rather than turning it into a full-time job or all-consuming career. One that demanded a constant level of achievement to keep his family fed and mortgage paid.

Setting the bar low, then clearing it often. A recipe for happiness, if not success.

He smiled wistfully at what might have been, and reflected that had he stayed in the sweet spot he may not have found himself in his present circumstances, unsuccessfully attempting to sell products he didn’t understand to punters who didn’t care that he once regularly competed against (and lost to) some of the greatest sportspeople in the world.

Like many people, the former sportsman seemed to enjoy talking about himself. As we exited the property he was quoting to supply windows for, I asked him a follow-up question that I had always been curious about.

With his sporting career behind him, on reflection, if he was really honest with himself, did he always genuinely believe he could be the best? Convinced with the certainty possessed only by the religious, the crypto enthusiasts, and the die-hard tragics who support perennially losing sporting teams?

Or had there been a moment when he realised that it wasn’t going to happen? That no matter how hard he tried, how well he trained, how much effort he applied, he just didn’t quite have what it would take to succeed?

I’d expected reticence.

Possibly resentment.

Anger at someone questioning the premise he had based his entire existence, career, and sense of identity upon?

Instead, he laughed. Raised an eyebrow. Admitted it had been his first international competition, back when he had been a teenager some twenty years earlier.

He had been fast. Strong. Naturally gifted.

A diligent trainer.

Best in his school. Best at his club. Best in the nation.

His coach’s favourite student.

Someone who listened. Learned. Applied what he was taught. Constantly improved.

But once he got on the international stage, he encountered truly world-class competition for the first time. Best coaching. Best nutrition. Best facilities. Best genetics. Best performance-enhancing drugs.

He didn’t win that first competition. He didn’t come close. He didn’t even make it to the final.

Somewhat bewildered, having never been so convincingly beaten before, he turned to his coach with loads of questions but only one incontrovertible answer.

The coach had smiled, patted him on the shoulder, and commended him on giving it his all.

Then said something that had stayed with the former sportsperson throughout his professional career.

Picking who is ultimately going to win is nearly impossible. Those who will not, you can predict with a high degree of certainty. For whatever reason, often through no fault of their own, they just don’t have what it takes”.

The double-glazing salesman thought about what the coach said. Disagreed with it wholeheartedly. Spent every waking moment of the next decade determined to prove him wrong. And failed.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and the wisdom that sometimes comes with age, he conceded that his coach had been right. Deep down he had known at that first international competition that it would take a minor miracle or outside intervention for him to win a big competition.

He was good, some might say very good, but would never be great.

Throughout his career the winners had varied, but were always drawn from a small select group. The membership slowly changed over time, as former champions aged out and future champions appeared on the scene. But at any given time there just weren’t that many who stood a realistic chance of winning.

The also-rans were many and varied, but often discernible after just a brief interaction.

Most appeared on the scene briefly. Then moved on, in pursuit of more promising opportunities and more realistic goals.

A few stuck around and played the long game. Competing in smaller events, with less competitive fields. Less glamour. Less kudos. Less prize money. Winning occasionally. Placing often. Carving out a career for themselves after professional sports by slowly establishing themselves as a household name, without the packed trophy cabinets of the high-profile champions.

An entitled few battled onwards, heedless of results. Denial carrying them to the limit of their talents, and occasionally just beyond. Some call it grit. Others, stubbornness or being foolhardy. Believing themselves destined for greatness. An outcome the fates appear not to have signed up to.

The former professional sportsman learned that his spidey-sense ability for sizing up the competition and identifying the potential winners was not infallible. But, like that possessed by his coach, it was mostly right, most of the time.

He gave an apologetic shrug, then observed that it worked just as well on potential customers. He’d been able to tell within the first minute of meeting me that I wasn’t going to buy his windows. He had answered my questions because I’d shown an interest in him as a person, and because he had some time to kill before his next sales call.

Over the weeks since I met the former professional sportsman, I have thought about his story often. While it was anecdotal rather than scientific, his experiences rang true and I could relate to his conclusion.

During my first week at university, I sat amongst hundreds of other eager first-year students studying Accounting 101. The lecturer had shuffled up the podium and commenced his welcome with a blunt admonishment.

Look at the person seated to your left. Now look at the person seated to your right. By the end of this year, only one in three of you will still be attending university and still be enrolled in this degree.

We students had all smirked and shaken our heads in disbelief, as the lecturer launched into a well rehearsed speech introducing the concepts of debits, credits, and double-entry bookkeeping.

But here is the thing: he was right.

By year’s end, well over half the students had failed, dropped out, deferred, or changed degrees.

That the churn was so high was surprising. But for the most part, within a week or two of commencing the academic year, those who would leave and those who survive were both largely predictable.

Another example I have seen play out several times are graduate programs at megacorp client sites.

Within a year, certainly less than two, more than half the entrants had been chewed up and spat out by some combination of corporate politics, poor career choice, and an unfounded sense of entitlement.

Of those who remained, the select few who would likely ascend to the top stood out from the crowd.

Clearly identifiable even at that early stage, from those hard workers, grafters, and the safe pairs of hands who would experience a steady yet unremarkable rise until their careers topped out then tailed off. Having reached the limits of their abilities, network, and potential.

And ascend they mostly do.

Not always, and not all the way to the top.

But for the most part, further and faster than their fellow alumni from the graduate program class.

Sometimes there are exceptions to the professional sportsman’s theory. Where the outcome isn’t at all obvious in the beginning. Where the results aren’t predetermined.

Take this blog for example.

Almost four years ago it started as a quiet corner of the internet where I told stories and attempted to make sense of my random rambling thoughts.

Four years is an entire olympiad. Too long to be considered short term. Too short to be viewed as long term. An awkward in-between duration.

Four years after I hit publish on that first story, the botnet army, plus the occasional human reader, have stopped by to read them in their hundreds of thousands.

Which is humbling, and more than a little surprising!

Thanks to all who have invested their scarce precious time visiting, reading, commenting, and sharing what you have discovered here.

I suspect I know less now than I thought I did in the beginning, but my storytelling has improved!

Over that time, I haven’t competed at the Olympics, nor found myself selling double glazing. I haven’t gotten rich, nor gone broke. Haven’t been discovered, nor been forgotten. Just comfortably meandered along, writing when the words flow and I find myself with something to say.

Which all things considered, makes for quite an enjoyable hobby.

P.S. Just for chuckles, after writing this I went back and read each of my year 1, year 2, and year 3 anniversary posts.


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16 Comments

  1. FanofIndeedably 15 June 2022

    Thanks for continuing to write and sharing your thoughts along your journey. Reading your pieces edifies because you communicate what many of us are going through along similar paths, but are much less able to synthesize internally, much less communicate so clearly.

  2. Full Time Finance 16 June 2022

    I’m reminded of my time in university. I spent much of my life aspiring to be a programmer of games. I went to a top university for computer science. I got a degree with honors in computer science. But I observed something then.. My ability to code was upper middle when I really applied my all. There were people I went to school with that could do what I did in three weeks seemingly in a few hours while inebriated. The simple reality was I was good but I wasn’t top tier.

    I came out of university into the dotcom bubble only able to land a programming job at a company in pharma. I was a star in that small pond of it work at the pharma company but those type of places were also off shoring their it support at the time. So ultimately I saw the writing on the wall and found myself something else to do with my skill set.

    It’s not just sports where there are haves and have nots…. And you need to be able to judge what is realistic given your actual talents not what you wish you were.

    For the record I haven’t coded for work in over a decade and am in the pay scale when adjusted for cost of living if I’d been a phenomenal coder. But it took realizing I needed another direction to get there.

  3. Sas 16 June 2022

    For what it’s worth I see your ability with withs as at Olympian standard, you us them do beautifully, love the blog!

  4. Fire And Wide 16 June 2022

    Happy “Almost four years Birthday” then?!?

    It took me some time to find your blog but I’ve always been glad I did. Always smile when a new story pops up in my Inbox and clearly the masses agree, so yeah, you’re doing something right 😉

    I often think how life would be so much easier for all of us if we accepted what we really do know already deep down. But these days, I think that tension is actually useful. Sometimes it’s good to struggle a little. The trick is getting that level of tension just right, I think. Now that’s the sweet spot indeed(ably?).

    Cheers as ever for another fine yarn!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 June 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Michelle.

      That self-knowledge piece can be a fine line. Our inner saboteur does a pretty good imitation at times. For example, we all feel out of our depth initially each time we change jobs or careers, yet after a few weeks or a few months we have usually become at least partially competent at the new challenge. Which isn’t the same as good, and certainly not great, but in a world of acceptable incompetence it is often “good enough“. That said 99% of us aren’t cut out to be the CEO of a megacorp or professional sportsperson, and deep down at least 95% of us know it.

  5. John Smith 16 June 2022

    Your blog is one of the few I still read nowadays 🙂 Please keep do it.

    I discovered FI(RE) later, at age 44+, but in less than 11 years (ish) I recovered, up to the “enough”. In my naivety I saw myself as the biggest fish in the local pond (university). That was my “sweet point” of competition. Then I realized I was in the wrong competition field. So I changed few employers; and few countries. The only constant thing was (and is) my family love.

    My 30+ years old university knowledge is useless today. Oh boy, sic transit gloria mundi. But the good thing is that competition (forced on us by capitalism) is not necessary for me anymore. Life should be a joy, not a continuously struggle/battle/competition. Intellectual challenge is always welcome.

  6. Ward Just 16 June 2022

    Wow – what an interesting post in a great blog. Thank you very much! May you write long and prosper.

    I met a guy looking for a job, he was a Canadian hockey player who had played in the German league. Not quite good enough to make it in Canada and now, after retiring, without an apprenticeship, experience or education, trying to gain a foothold in the structured German business landscape. I wished him well, well knowing that he had slim chances of getting a job above manual labor or service.

    That being said, there is a pride in being top whatever in your club, league, region, country, or in the WORLD. With every step, there is a 100% gain in abilities needed in able to be competitive/to thrive/to survive.

    I remember climbing up to the start of the Hahnenkamm one day before the race. Under the ropes we skied, surprised by the steepness and pure ice below the skis. My top (mediocre) amateur status melted away to decent hobby skier status with every turn. Left turn, right turn, jump, straightaway, repeat. At the end of it, I was soaked in Angst sweat, underwear yellow in front and brown in the back. Survived but massively humbled – 100% better ability needed above and beyond amateur status. Was that my ‚enough‘ epiphany? Had I risen to my level of incompetence?

    Kinda weird, isn‘t it. Like in our daily world. You buy something, you get used to it, you move on. Like the athlete moving up from rung to rung. You arrive only to want the next rung – the A4 to the A6 to the A8 or maybe the Q7 (haha) – bank VP to SVP to executive SVP to Co-Pres., to…

    The athlete cannot skip rungs (legally or ethically). He can‘t buy credit, leverage, ask Uncle Joe for a handout or a good word, he can only be thankful for good genes, mega discipline, and luck. Maybe he can indeed leverage: golf in spite of back issues, ski with torn cartilage, etc. Risk it all for fame and fortune – get rich or die trying. Ask my buddies whether American football in high school was good for their 50 year old knees.

    Where is my ‚enough‘? Is it the A4 after doing the A6 monthly payment bullshit for 3 years? Is it been there, done that? Maybe it‘s being one of the best at the ski club after knowing where and what you were able to achieve on the race circuit? Basking in glory days? Is it the differentiation between things and experiences/pursuits?

    The cool thing is that with pursuits you can just reframe them. Most things you can‘t get great at. However, you might get good if you try. Or in the case of golf you‘ll never get there – 4 hours of hell, every weekend, a life long! And when I hit the ball into the woods, my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking of Franz Klammer’s 1984 final decent into the arms of thousands of screaming, jubilant Streif spectators.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 June 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Ward Just.

      You raise some excellent points, and at least one slightly disturbing mental image!

      The skipping rungs observation is well made. I remember hearing an interview with a professional road cyclist who was banned for taking performance enhancing drugs. He was unapologetic, his only regret was getting caught. The observation that stuck with me was that when the whole field is getting a little (or a lot) of extra help, there is virtually no way that somebody who races clean can compete. It wasn’t a case of the top few cheating, but rather that those who don’t cannot make it into the top teams or compete in the high profile races. His lament was his lowly ranked team couldn’t afford the state of the art drugs that were ahead of the testing regime at the time, so they got caught.

      A similar dynamic is at play in professional motor racing, but rather than drugs it is sponsorship. It has been a long time since being great alone can secure a seat in a competitive ride.

      In both cases, being willing to do whatever it takes is mere table stakes to play the game. It doesn’t guarantee a win, merely providing the opportunity to compete against those with similar combinations of skill and external influence.

      I often wonder about those who climb up several rungs, pass their point of incompetence, then retreat back to the relatively comfort and safety of their small pond. Is it as satisfying, once you’ve seen what real talent looks like? I suspect that is something that can’t be unseen, a genie that won’t go back in the bottle easily.

  7. Andyfromaus 20 June 2022

    This is truly one of the best posts I have read of yours Indeedably (and have been reading since the early days). Impactful to reflect on our time on the stage.

    I wonder whether this is intertwined with the happiness U-curve as people adjust expectations to reality and accept limitations.

    One of the greatest things my father ever did for me (as a teenager convinced he was going to become a world class windsurfer) – He said that I needed to win the adult competition at our local spot, and not just the children one, saying that I would shortly be competing at that level.
    Exactly as you mentioned – the step up in capabilities is so clear, that the story one tells oneself can only be stripped away if we are honest.

    How best to educate my children about this in the longer term ? Any advice from others most appreciated..

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 June 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Andyfromaus, glad you liked it.

      You might be on to something with the happiness U-curve. Perhaps kids are happy because they don’t know any better, magic is real, and anything is possible. Old people are happy because they make their peace with reality as it is and surrender to it, rather than continuing to fight the cognitive dissonance that the world is not as they believe it should be. Somebody wiser than me once said that the secret to happiness was maintaining low expectations.

      Your question about educating children is one I’ve wrestled with also. At my younger son’s school, most of the kids believe they are destined to become Premier League footballers or social media influencers. There isn’t a single aspirational doctor or teacher amongst them!

      The sad part is if any of them were likely to make it as footballers, they would already have been talent spotted and drafted into youth development squads associated with one of those professional teams. In all but the most exceptional of cases, their window has already closed, as they are too old even if they had the natural skills required.

      I remember my parents insisting on us kids having a series of unfulfilling entry level jobs, with the twin goals of instilling a work ethic and showing us what life would be like if we do well in school. Paperboy. Milkman. Shop assistant. Bar useless.

      Lessons I learned well. The down side of this approach was it led me towards a set of career choices that were safe but unfulfilling, chosen for remuneration potential rather than enjoyment or job satisfaction. The grown-up choice. The up side of that, by my 40s I could afford the luxury of existentialist angst and the yearning for meaning, rather than worrying about where my next meal would come from!

  8. weenie 20 June 2022

    Congrats on 4 years, indeedably – it’s long term, wouldn’t you say a 4-year relationship was long term? 😉

    A great read as usual – when I was younger, I dreamt of being an Olympian, of representing my country, of crying on that podium.

    Alas, I’m a Jack, or rather Jill of all trades – good at a lot of things but excelling in none, eg I was a fast sprinter but not the fastest; I was in all the school sports teams but never the best player.

    But I’ve known this a long time and I think it’s meant that I’ve been content (both life and career) with just being good enough, better than average, aware of my limits, knowing that when I do apply myself, I can usually get to a level where I’m good and I can still enjoy it without worrying or stressing about being the best. Perhaps that’s meant I’ve never ‘aimed for the stars’ – I think I’ve just been realistic with myself!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 June 2022 — Post author

      Thanks very much, weenie. Time is relative, most of my clothes have been going for more than four years. In the scheme of things, I’d say four years is just starting to get comfortable!

      Your better than average comment made me smile. How many people genuinely believe they are better than average drivers, or smarter than average investors? We can’t all be right! At least when it comes to sprinting you had an objective measure at the finishing line.

      I applaud your realism.

What say you?

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