What Does “The Best” Look Like?

head shot of a bearded human in running kit looking into the camera with a field of cornflowers in the background

I recently watched a fascinating documentary on a generation of Swedish gold medal-winning athletes.

It lifted the lid on the high price high performance athletes pay in terms of injury. But in doing so it raised questions that any of us who want to excel should ask ourselves.

The most striking question was “what is a price worth paying for success?” Despite more than half the athletes involved having suffered stress fractures, and many having multiple life-altering surgeries, a staggering 90% believed this price was worth it.

But while that is the superficially important question, it leads us to a far more important one: what is success? What does it mean to be “the best”?

And here, one thing was clear. Many of these athletes considered success to be one or more “moment”. For some it was about competing on or winning at the Olympic stage. For some it was about records. For some it was about that magical moment when “it all comes together.”

This is very similar to what I find when I am look at the kinds of goals many businesses or institutions have. These goals are singular. They are convergent — they can be pursued at the expense of everything else, and that makes the “is it worth it?” calculus both very easy to perform and very dangerous in the context of lives that, seen from a wider angle, are never convergent or singular.

It reinforced the importance not of considering aiming at a high point but at a large “area under the line.” Success, “the best”, for me is about maximising the interrelation of many factors. In the context of performance it is about “the best performance over the longest time at each one of many things” — not letting any one of those things dip below a certain level is as important as pushing anyone of them above a level.

This is also when I think about setting personal goals, I frame them as “sustainable life goals” not milestones. Goals for me are elevated ways of being that are complex and continuous. Being “the best” is something I can constantly strive for but never assess my achievement until the end of my life.

When we think of high performance, maybe we need a shift in perspective from the single point to the area under the curve. Or, if not a shift then at least a widening., An acceptance that a rich and fulfilled life is “high performing” just as a life that contains records and medals is.