So what do the Olympics have to do with working in a nonprofit anyway?
I unabashedly love the Olympics! The global spirit, ceremony, fanfare, and anticipation of athletes representing far corners of the world stir in me excitement, joy and wild rooting usually reserved for strategic planning! Seriously. As I’ve been watching the games these last two weeks, I have marveled at the supernatural feats of Olympians. But I know they are just humans – at the top of their game. In addition to their raw talent, incredible commitment, endurance, and strength, I also admire how they play the game, their triumphs and defeats.
There’s a lot we young nonprofit professionals can take away from the Olympics.
Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams all embody excellence. They are the best they can be and better than anyone else at their sport. While I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that for these athletes, nothing but their best is acceptable. They set their goals high and go after them full force. Can you imagine the strides we could make if we lived our lives in the same way? That idea for a new nonprofit you’ve been playing around with – that impossible seeming grant opportunity, or one day being the boss – could be within grasp. Striving for excellence is infectious to those around us in our organizations and communities.
Watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, American beach volleyball players, is amazing. Hearing them talk about how committed they are to one another and their shared goal is motivating. You can tell that they know what the other is going to do before they do it – they’re in sync. Even when things don’t go quite right, they support one another to the next point and celebrate their success together. This inspires me to be a better teammate. We can’t change the world alone, end homelessness single handedly, or win a team competition on our own. It takes communication, alignment, and support in a strong team or coalition to accomplish a mission.
I am always moved by the athletes who lose, how they lose, and what they do with that loss. These people dedicate their whole lives for an opportunity that comes once every four years and may be over in 10 seconds. And not everyone can win. Isn’t that the story of life? For the last eight years, Alison Felix, an American sprinter, has come in second in the 200 meter dash. She turned her disappointment to determination and this year ran away with the gold. The lesson in this is that we will not always get that job we’re eyeing, the promotion we want, elected or appointed to head that project we’ve been pining for at work. How we handle that loss is what matters. There will be another opportunity, and luckily for us it will probably appear in less than four years.
It is underrated. Whether it is in winning or losing, nothing wins me over like an athlete or competitor who is gracious. The women’s soccer final between the United States and Japan was a competition between the two best teams in the world. In a nail biting game, the American women won. The Japanese women seemed devastated. Perhaps this Time article said it best, “Despite a stream of tears in the minutes after the match ended, the Japanese team soon acted as if they had won silver, not lost the gold.” Despite our best efforts we will sometimes lose. Next time, try reframing that loss and remember what you have accomplished.
My favorite moment of the games was after a 400 meter semi-final race when James Kirani from Grenada exchanged competition nametags with Oscar Pistorious, a South African sprinter and double amputee. These men are fierce competitors, serious in their ambitions, and great sportsmen. Kirani moved on and eventually won the final race. Pistorious did not advance out of the semi-final. But he ran, as an amputee, against runners with legs, in the Olympics. Instead of basking in the glory of winning that race, James graciously and genuinely acknowledged the huge accomplishment of Pistorious. Instead of organizational gloating or budget envy, the lesson for our sector is that we’re all in this together, whether or not win the race.
These Olympians are a good reminder of what is possible with the growth of natural talent, hard work, and determination. We young nonprofit professionals can achieve greatness in our own way if we take a cue from Olympians.
What greatness is in your future?