Thinking about Success: A Perspective from Skating

It’s been my pleasure over the last couple of months to transcribe interview highlights for the Manleywoman Skatecast, a free podcast created by my fellow adult skater Allison Manley. Allison undertook this venture five years ago out of frustration with “fluffy” coverage of figure skating that focused on “what Johnny Weir ate last week, or what shoes Michelle Kwan is wearing”. To date Allison has interviewed more than 50 people associated with figure skating – and, proudly, has done so only with funding from listener donations.

I volunteered to transcribe partly for selfish professional reasons – to practice my transcription skills for my research projects involving interviews – but also because Allison’s interviews are incredibly valuable oral documentations of figure skating history. As a researcher of organizational history, I know how easy it is for information to get lost if no one makes the effort to set down some record of it somewhere. So I’m glad I can use my skills to help preserve and promote the pieces of history that Allison is collecting.

And often, I find ideas in the podcasts that make me look at my professional work from a different angle. This happened recently while I was working on Allison’s interview with Chris Howarth. Chris was the winner of the British men’s figure skating championship in 1980, and competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics and two world figure skating championships. He is now a skating commentator on the Eurosport cable television network – and although Eurosport isn’t available on TV everywhere, he has fans all over the world that post clips of his commentary on YouTube, because he’s so entertaining.

Chris Howarth at the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills, IL, where he is the figure skating director. (Credit: Vernon Hills TribLocal)

Chris’ competitive skating career overlapped with the careers of two of Britain’s greatest  skaters – John Curry and Robin Cousins. So Allison asked him what it was like to compete against them. Here’s his answer:

I couldn’t skate like  [John] and I believe that nobody can — he was in a class, a league of his own. And then there was Robin, and I was second to Robin all the time. Forever. I could never beat him. And he was a different kind of skater, much more athletic, which suited me as well. It was just a marvelous privilege to be around and to compete alongside Robin when he went to Europeans and Worlds, and to be there — it was just brilliant. I think it actually got more out of me — I was never near as talented as both those guys, but it helped me fulfill my potential, I suppose, because I had someone to look up to and the level was so high.

This perspective really resonated with me. It completely goes against the “silver is the first loser” mentality that ruins sports for a lot of people. You could say that Chris had the misfortune to have his skating career coincide with the careers of not one but two of the greatest skaters of modern times – and skating is not a sport where you can redshirt a year to get a competitive advantage. So it would be understandable if Chris expressed even a little bit of bitterness or annoyance at the circumstances of his career. But he doesn’t. He remembers that competing against those two great skaters forced him to be a better skater, and he appreciates having had that opportunity.

If we relate this to work and organizations, not every organization is Apple or Microsoft, and not everyone is Steve Jobs or Bill Gates (or the better parts of them, anyway). If you read a lot of business media, you might come away feeling that there’s something wrong with your organization if it’s not completely dominant in its industry, or that there’s something wrong with you if you aren’t a powerful and rich thought leader. Or – you could follow Chris’ reasoning, and be glad that you have the chance to work with, or compete with, great people or great organizations – because to be in their league, you have to up your game and your level of performance, and that makes you better than you would have been otherwise.

Allison’s interview with Chris suggested something else important. Despite not being an internationally famous skater, Chris has now worked in skating for nearly 30 years after retiring from competition – as a coach, as an administrator, and as a TV commentator. To me, that accomplishment reinforces the importance of being proud of what you can do, regardless of what others accomplish. It’s easy to say “sucks to be me” when you lose (and I will admit to having uttered those words a few times in my own skating career). But Chris built his career not by defining himself as the person who could never beat Robin Cousins, but by focusing on what he himself accomplished, and building on the opportunities and connections he gained from those experiences.

In my opinion, defining success this way – long-term and holistically – rather than defining it by who has the most money, status, power or accolades at any single point in time, would be much healthier for people, and for organizations.

2 comments

  1. So true – for mad scientists as well. I may not be as madly productive and insightful as the great ones, but I take inspiration from them to increase my overall madness. Great blog, btw.

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