Beyond Goal Setting
The 1988 Winter Olympics were held in Calgary, Canada. I am a rabid downhill skier, so I was watching the televised events with great interest.
Of particular interest to me was Pirmin Zurbriggen, 25, Switzerland’s brilliant all-around champion. The serene and religous young man was also a fierce competitor. Before the Olympics, Zurbirggen had told the media”I like pressure. I like to fight. I like to be at the best level of my talents.”
I was watching the second day of an event called the two-day combined. His run on the downhill portion the day before had put Zurbriggen in first by .48 of a second.
In his first of two runs in the combined slalom he tied for sixth. He did not have to do better than that, because due to the computerized formula that measures winning and losing in the combined events, even an unspectacular finish in the second slalom run would have clinched Zurbriggen’s second gold medal of the Olympics (he had already won a gold medal in the downhill).
I watched as Zurbriggen exploded out of the starting gate. His run was proceeding well until suddenly, approximately two thirds of the way down the course, the tip of his right ski caught a pole and Zurbriggen went down hard. Later he would say, “I skied too close to the gate, and I don’t know why. It probably wasn’t a matter of more than a centimeter or two.”
Why had Zurbriggen crashed and ruined his chances for the gold? Was he being careless? Did he push too hard or take an unnecessary chance? I could only speculate and no one else seemed to know.
Two weeks later I was skiing at Copper Mountain, about an hour and a half from my home. Riding up on the ski lift, I started a conversation with the ski instructor sitting next to me. I learned that he was a friend of Zurbriggen’s. He told me that they had taught skiing together many years earlier. I asked him to speculate on what had happened at the Olympics. I wanted to know if he had any insight into why Zurbriggen went down on the course. I’ll never forget what he said, because it helped change my philosophy of business and of life.
“You know, I haven’t talked to Zurbriggen since the Olympics, so I can’t say for sure,” the ski instructor told me, “But I think I understand him well enough to explain it. See, in my opinion, he probably wasn’t trying just to win a gold medal. He was, as always, trying to ski his best race.”
What I learned that day applies to us all. Most men and women are content to achieve their goals and objectives. Leaders pursue their potential. You and I know how good we’ve become. But the once question none of us can answer is: How good can be? Perhaps we give up a great deal because we place it too safe, too conservatively and don’t take appropriate risks.
I don’t know what motivated Pirmin Zurbriggen that day in Calgary, but I do know this: Champions in any walk of life are committed to the pursuit of their true potential, to answering the question “How good can I be?”