Whether Olympic athlete, corporate executive or political power player, the difference between winning and losing always comes down to small and simple things. There are countless courses on winning, but there are very few that deal with why people lose — especially when individuals lose it all by seemingly throwing it all away. The reason most people fail, in any area of life, is rarely because they don't have the right strengths, talents or ability. Most people fail because they allow their weaknesses to become the dominant force in their behavior.
For the rich, famous and powerful, weaknesses are often the difference between being a rising star or a shooting star. Blinded by ego or puffed up by pride, many talented, gifted and extraordinary people have lost their way, and everything they claimed they valued most, by allowing their actions to be driven by their weaknesses.
Weaknesses, like a thirst for riches, power, public prominence, sexual pleasure or dominance, have been the undoing for many prominent people throughout history. A quick temper has unraveled many business executives and marriages. Becoming easily distracted has sunk professional golfers and parents with young children. The pursuit of personal pleasure has crashed political careers and caused the foundations of family and community to crumble. A lack of discipline has doomed downhill skiers and figure skaters along with countless would-be entrepreneurs and inventors.
In "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas More delivers one of the most powerful and poignant lines of all time. More has been betrayed by Richard Rich, who, after falsely testifying against More, was rewarded by being made attorney general for Wales. More confronts his betrayer with, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?"
Our weaknesses, if left unchecked, can contribute to our personal "but for Wales" moments. Shakespeare put it this way, "Who for one small grape, would the entire vine destroy?"
Over the past year, local, national and international headlines have been filled with cautionary tales of behavioral weaknesses driving otherwise brilliant and talented people off the stage, out of the arena and away from victory and success. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"
The antidote for avoiding the path to weakness-driven destruction and achieving strength-centered success is found in ancient Greece and reinforced at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs: Know thyself. The two-word phrase is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates and is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Knowing our weaknesses and becoming aware of their influence on our ability to perform at our best is the beginning of personal transformation. Tendencies quickly turn into habits, good or bad, that end up driving our actions. Awareness, "knowing thyself," is the only path to ensuring our talents and strengths are the dominant force of our direction and future.
Learning to minimize our weaknesses while maximizing our strengths is critical to true and lasting success in every area of life. It is true that we all have weaknesses — but history is also filled with people who overcame weaknesses to make a difference. In referencing weaknesses, one religious leader quipped, "A glance at the Bible shows that Peter had a temper, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a persecutor, Mirium was a gossiper, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Moses stuttered, Zaccheus was short, Abraham was old, and Lazarus, of coarse, was dead." The good news for all of us is that weaknesses can be overcome.
Watching the Olympics play out from Korea, we will see the battle of weaknesses and strengths on full display and in dramatic fashion. The difference between becoming a gold medal champion and someone who just participated will often hinge on a hundredth of a second, a fraction of a point or the length of a skate. New heroes and heroines who overcome their challenges and shortcomings to stand atop the medal podium will inspire us.
Hopefully these Olympians will motivate us to overcome whatever is holding us back or preventing us from being our best. As author Denis Waitley has said, "We should live every day as our own personal Olympic moment."