At the Opening Ceremony of the long-delayed Tokyo Olympics, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach commended the people of Japan for their perseverance amidst the many challenges of the global pandemic. He then congratulated the athletes for carrying on with their training despite the clouds of uncertainty that shadowed them this past year. “What is true for the perseverance of the Japanese people is also true for you, my fellow Olympic athletes, …” he said. “You struggled, you persevered, you never gave up, and today you are making your Olympic dream come true.”
Struggling, persevering, never giving up: Bach’s celebration of the athletes who have gathered in Tokyo captures one essential element of an Olympic Frame of Mind. While this element appears especially clear in the bright light of the Olympic torch, it applies equally to success in any field, including the vibrant and vital social sector in which I have spent my working life.
Consider Roy Prosterman, founder of the world-renowned land rights organization Landesa. For nearly twenty years after he launched it, Landesa consisted of a small team working out of a one-bedroom apartment so crowded that half the files were kept in the bathtub and the other half on the stove! But the team kept at its important mission, determined to promote social justice and help tenant farmers around the world obtain property rights that would provide them with security and opportunity. And, step-by-step over five decades, Landesa achieved a demonstrable impact in the lives of nearly 400 million people and became the global, award-winning organization it is today. Prosterman, who will celebrate his 86th birthday at a party this month, continues to be highly engaged in the organization. In fact, Prosterman continued to conduct field work across the globe well into his eighties, often working in harsh conditions among those who live in extreme poverty.
Prosterman and his colleagues exemplify the kind of dedication that characterizes the Olympic mindset—dedication that endures over time and amid often adverse conditions.
Put in the Time—and Lots of It
Athletes who reach the top of their sport are undoubtedly blessed with physical attributes that set them apart from the average person. Ultimately, however, Olympic-level athletes are not born, but made—over thousands of hours of practice and years spent building, honing, and testing their skills.
Many people are familiar with the “ten-thousand-hour rule,” which was popularized by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in his widely-read 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. The research on which the “rule” is based came from studies of chess champions done by Herbert Simon and William Chase back in the 1970s. Gladwell calls their paper, which was published in American Scientist, “one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise.” What interested Gladwell was this finding, as explained by Simon and Chase:
“There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions.”
Gladwell further cited a study of 76 famous classical composers that was carried out by the psychologist John Hayes who found that all but three had created their greatest works only after they had been composing for at least a decade. Thus, argued Gladwell, while high-level success undoubtedly requires talent, the 10,000-hour research shows that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In other words, skills that are not exceptional at the outset can improve significantly over time.
The basketball legend (and two-time Olympic gold medalist) Michael Jordan famously failed to make the varsity team his sophomore year of high school—and was so upset about it, he told reporters, that he went home and cried. But, rather than give up, Jordan played junior varsity and practiced longer and harder. “Whenever I was working out and got tired and ﬁgured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” Jordan explained. “That usually got me going again.” Australian Olympic swimmer Ariarne Titmus, who on July 25 beat the five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky to win gold in the 400-meter freestyle, told interviewers, “A lot of people don’t actually understand how much time goes into being a professional athlete, and not just training at the pool, but going home and recovering.” She added:
I was never the most talented swimmer. I got where I am because I trained really hard from such a young age. … I never had any strength and I finally started to build some strength. When I was younger, people never thought that I would be successful in swimming. So I think if you believe you can do it, do it. Train hard and be dedicated. And that’s the way to go.
That’s certainly the route taken by CAMFED, the Campaign for Female Education, which was founded in 1993 to help marginalized girls go to school so they can learn, thrive, and lead change. Year after year, by the sheer force of dedication to their mission, CAMFED leaders have found ways to help more and more girls receive an education. To take one example, the organization has successfully scaled its operation by harnessing the power of its steadily growing alumnae network, the CAMFED Association, or CAMA. Founded in 1998 by CAMFED’s first graduate cohort of 400 students, CAMA has grown to nearly 180,000 members who support the next generation of young learners and leaders. Angeline Murimirwa, CAMFED Executive Director (and herself a CAMFED alumnae) explained:
As young women who have succeeded against the odds, we know what it takes for girls to get an education, and why it is so vital. We stand proud with our stories of the struggles we went through to get where we are today, and together we find strength in them. Whereas at one time, we may have been dismissed for our background of rural poverty, we are now sought out as experts on the challenges girls face. If a girl drops out of school, people turn to us and we turn over every stone to uncover the cause and pave the way for her return. We are changing the odds for today’s generation of girls, and disrupting the “default settings” for what a girl from a background of rural poverty can go on to become.
Persevere—and Never Give Up!
Perseverance is an equally critical component of Olympic-level success. This quality differs slightly from persistence in that involves the ability to press on despite appreciable difficulty. Indeed, in this Olympic year, as IOC president Bach noted, perseverance was fundamental because every athlete had their lives and training schedules upended; many had to stop training for a time, or train alone, and all had to devote a year longer than anticipated to preparing for the Games.
Simone Manuel—the first Black woman to win an individual medal in swimming (two golds and two silvers in 2016, a bronze thus far in Tokyo)—displayed particular perseverance in becoming a swimmer in the first place. Throughout her childhood, people constantly questioned her choice to swim instead of play basketball or run track. In 2020, she not only had to deal with training-related challenges, she wrote, but with the label of “the Black swimmer” and the concomitant expectation that she be “the voice of Black America” during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. As a result, she put in perhaps too much time and suffered from “overtraining syndrome,” which left her exhausted just walking up a flight of stairs. Required to rest, she found herself underprepared for the Olympic Trials and failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle, in which she had previously won gold. But she didn’t give up—on the contrary, she persevered, made the team for the 50 free, and was then chosen to anchor the relay in which the US team took bronze.
As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in an Olympic-eve address, “Every athlete in Tokyo has overcome enormous obstacles and demonstrated great determination. If we bring that same energy to our global challenges, we can achieve anything.”
Originally published in Forbes