The Olympics, Business and Self-Control: Lessons to Learn

Learning From Rio Olympic Games

Rio 2016 Olympics commenced with an amazing opening ceremony this weekend. Medals are already being awarded to those who conquered the mastery to be at the very top of the world in their own fields.

Though I’m not a TV-watcher, I enjoy watching these games especially with my children because it seems to me it’s a reminder of the greatness of humanity and the spirit of excellence and dedication that people around the world share.

It amazes me that there are so many people who choose to dedicate their lives to so many unique sport games. Many of them we do not even hear about normally.

It also shows that there is no boundary when we do not hold any prejudice and come together with a common goal. Being part of this shared event with other top athletes of the world is probably the real summit of every athlete’s sporting career.

And the more I thought about what made these people reach the Rio Games — the common factor that led them to the limelight, the more this word came up to me: self-control.

Self-Control: A Learned Skill That Drives Our Life’s Work

There have been many studies identifying that children who demonstrate better self-control become higher achievers later in life (such as the well-known Stanford experiment ‘The Marshmallow Experiment’).

When a child learns to control the emotional impulse for the longer-term perceived benefits and delay gratification, they are likely to succeed later… These findings make sense to us because we know excellence requires effort and making effort is not always fun.

Choosing to practice hours and hours everyday in the pursuit of mastery and of excellence in sports (and in anything!) takes self-control.

And exercising that control is not always easy. For example, when it takes long-term effort to experience the outcome we set out to achieve, it’s very easy to get distracted by short-term gratifications. We feel like sleeping in and skip the routine when we feel tired or demotivated. But those top athletes only reaches the summit by getting up again to do the work that really matters to them.

According to extensive scholarly studies, self-control is a learned skill not a natural gift. No babies have self-control when they are born. They cannot control their bladders or their crying impulses. But at some point, all children start to learn some level of self-control (true …. some much more than others).

It also turns out that having very limited self-control in later life is linked to issues like depression, anxiety and even criminal behaviors.

So, watching the Olympics made me wonder: what makes some of us gain greater-self control and what makes others struggle with it?

Building Your Self-Control Muscle

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the mechanism of self-control is to see it as one of our muscle elements. The more we train, the stronger it gets. Having regular training rituals and continuing them for a longer period of time helps us build our self-control muscle.

But there are other important things to note once we see self-control as part of our muscular structure.

  1. We can only gradually build our self-control
  2. When we do not use it for some time, it can deteriorate
  3. We need a break in between the ‘training routines’

If we try to skip the long-term approach and suddenly try to exert a lot of self-control, you could injure yourself. You cannot suddenly lift a huge weight. You can only train yourself to increase the weight over a prolonged period of time if you want to achieve great results without having serious injuries.

And no matter how much self-control you exercise for a specific period of time (e.g. when an important campaign is running), if you suddenly stop it and get lazy after the period is over, you could lose the accumulated strength quite easily.

You also cannot exercise strenuous self-control for too long without any break. Your muscle cannot perform at its best without a recovery period (I learned this watching the Weight-Lifting competition).

Now, let’s apply the same insight into our business-building endeavors to see where it leads.

Creating High-Achieving Business by Building Self-Control

The Olympians reach their summit also by having other factors like luck, access to funding/facility, family support and great coaches. And in the first place, it’s best to choose a game that your physical structure is naturally suited for (contrast the physical differences between the Olympic Basketballers and the Weight-Lifters as just one example).

When you remove all these conditional factors, the remaining factor to define the excellence is the level of self-control you attain and exercise.

In the business world too, your family status, access to funding and high-level connections or having great mentors and supporters (and luck) differentiates your chance of success at some level. And it definitely helps when you choose to do things that are naturally suited to you.

Beyond these conditions, what defines the excellence of your business is also… self-control.

So….. it’s good to contemplate on what you are doing to build your own and your team’s self-control today and everyday. Do you have a culture when turning up late or getting distracted all the time is accepted? Or do you discuss what routines can be implemented in your workplace with everyone’s agreement? And do you have a great coach to monitor and improve the overall level of your team’s self-control?

A Meaningful Game is A Fair Game

One of the issues that surfaced in the recent years of Olympics’ history was this: doping.

Because winning medals became so important for the countries and the athletes (and their sponsors), some thought doing whatever it took to win the game was important. This thought eventually accelerated to immoral practices like injecting specific hormones to alter the physique of the athletes even at the cost of the long-term health and well-being of the athletes.

We know that doping spoils the joy and inspiration of the games. And it destroys the real sportsman spirit of the athletes too. There is a huge cost to pay. Not many people agree that doping is a good or acceptable thing to do.

The thing is… in the business world, we may not always play with fair rules that express the real entrepreneurship and leadership spirit. In the pursuit of short-term wins, many businesses may consider or exercise some kind of ‘doping’.

This could be engaging a supplier that gives them a great quotation while taking advantage of slave labors. Or buying an unauthorized contact list and spamming people to get some sales. Or structuring the company so that they can get away with paying no or little corporate tax in any jurisdiction…

We can rationalize seemingly immoral approaches by saying “everyone is doing it.” The world is becoming increasingly complex and there does not seem to be a perfect way to be totally moral these days – there are so many things we are not even aware of in the chain of business transactions we are part of. But we can also reconsider the possibility to be playing a fairer game with a real businessman-ship.

Even when there are no common rules that control all businesses around the world, we probably know what makes a truly great business. And we can choose be part of ‘Olympic games of aspiring global businesses’ if we want to.

Perhaps yours (with that extra bit of self-control) can be a great candidate. 🙂


If you want to do more to create positive impact…

You can learn more about the art of making improvements in Masami’s latest book “GIVING BUSINESS: Creating The Maximum Impact in the Meaning-Driven World”.

You can also download the free e-book to find out how you can maximize the impact of your life and business from here.

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