What Do You Want, An Olympics Medal?

A Kick in the Career: In this week’s column, humorist and career expert Tom Stern writes about business competition, teamwork, and the basic human need for acknowledgment.

Watching the Olympics always fills me with a series of complicated emotions — a veritable frisson of admiration, pity and jealousy. Admiration because these competitors represent the pinnacle of achievement in all of their respective fields; whether they are a Decathlete gliding toward the finish line of a 1500 meter race at the close of a grueling 2-day event, or the fetching Brazilian Feres twins who can perfectly synchronize a vertical bent knee in the shallow end of a 75 foot pool, and have also posted videos on their website that quite handily demonstrate their flexibility on land.


I feel pity because the press can be so cold. Those who win make the cover of Time while those who lose by just one one hundreth of a second are lucky to get a two-line mention in Shrimp Boat Captain Weekly. I feel jealousy because, well, just look at these people: all physically fit enough to be extras in “300.” Meanwhile I sit on my couch watching them, unaware that the strange noise I’m hearing is not a distortion of my new 8-speaker surround system, but rather the sound of my gelatinous, ever-expanding stomach pushing the elastic waistband on my Adidas workout pants ever closer to the ozone. And then just before my pants snap, a new realization hits: a unifying theory of business and sports in which going for the gold is a metaphor for executive achievement. Okay, so when I’m pulling an all-nighter polishing an RFP, I don’t need to worry about my electrolytes, but I’m still intensely focused on beating out the competition, getting the contract I’m pushing for and making it into that white collar winners’ circle. Just like the greatest athletes, insecurity can drive us, which is why we’re probably all wondering at any given time: will that MBA pay off, or will it just stand for “Massively Broke Again”?

I think it’s time we admit that sports metaphors permeate our daily internal and external dialogues, as we come to understand that there is no “I” in Team, that it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, and that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how many resources you’re willing to invest to insure that your chief competitor gets audited. Here’s the problem: as of yet, there is no system in place in the business world that can duplicate the rush of an Olympiad. The team loyalty, the cheering crowds or the fluidly prolix Bob Costas giving everything to take home a medal in Men’s Freestyle Incessant Commentary. But in this day and age of reality TV, I’m sure somebody is out there waiting to buy my pitch. (Which, I might add, is now copyright-protected by virtue of my publishing it on the most safe and secure platform one could hope for: the Internet.)

Sure, there are incentive programs by which workers can receive recognition for their achievements. Company dinners, a well-timed retreat in which someone who is not Tony Robbins, but is the closest the budget would allow, leads everyone on a motivating rope and spare tire obstacle course where the winner gets to meet the CEO of Firestone. Up until now there has been nothing to match the glory of being able to represent your country, and your company, in a competitive event. Even beginning athletes get adrenaline-pumping glory, while many entry-level business people get a seven percent promotional bump and a much-coveted move from the boiler room to a corner cubicle. And, in our own way, we train as hard as Olympic competitors do. Maybe four-to-six years pursuing a dual major in Political Science and Economics doesn’t give you rock hard abs, but it does allow you to number crunch. And the way the system is set up now, true fame and recognition in the business world only comes in two ways: one, if you go to jail, wherein your biggest concern is trying to find a tie to go with your orange jumpsuit. Or, two, if you achieve some ridiculous, unattainable level of celebrity wealth like Donald Trump, wherein your biggest concern is trying to find a tie to match your orange hair.

How different it would be if an activity based costing analyst from Cedar Rapids was able to go up against a treasury ops risk management consultant from Smolensk as both attempt a comparative study of string, data compression and machine-learning algorithms while rapidly scissor-kicking on a 115 centimeter high pommel horse. The possibilities are endless. I can hear the announcer now: “and we’re here today for the men’s 100 meter Hewlett-Packard replacing-the-toner relay…the U.S. is not favored in this event, since nobody we know has ever taken the initiative when it comes to toner.” And then there are the exciting field reports. “It’s the third day of mixed sales lead competition, and Frank Willis, representing Luscious Living, Inc. is out in front, with eight signatures from retired couples longing for time shares on Maui even though three of them have since passed away. With six more days in the competition to go, only one person can catch him. The plucky Swede Monica Svevbregsatn, who has sold over twenty thousand shares of phantom stock in the rapidly emerging pre-chewed pen industry!” And every four years, the Workplace Olympics will be hosted by a different international city. So we probably won’t be able to afford a stadium, but the Polynesian-themed Tiki Suite at Great Britain’s Raddison Hotel of the Cotswolds will do just fine, where the five interlocking Olympic rings are formed by those paper strips they wrap around the toilet to give the illusion that it’s never been used.

The truth is, business is competition. We need to own that. I’ve worked at a lot of places where paranoia is rampant, an unlocked desk drawer is an invitation to sabotage and the definition of a friend is someone who will stab you in the front. Moving our job-related striving and all of its attendant dramas to the scrutiny of a world stage can only keep us more honest. Of course, my wife thinks all of this competition and need for approbation is just a flimsy-stand in for not facing up to a need for love and a deep-rooted denial of separation anxiety. There’s some truth to that. My own mother told me I was a difficult birth because I just didn’t want to come out of the womb. And why would I? After all, I had my own swimming pool and food whenever I wanted. Plus free cable.

Yet, no matter what Freud or my darling spouse might say, it could be that the need for glory is genetically coded into our business DNA. From the first grade, when we got the blue ribbon for making the best ashtray, to my own much-prized Recruiter of the Year Trophy, a five-inch bronze statue of a well-dressed businessman with the dour expression of a Willy Loman in the third act of Death of a Salesman. The truth is we work hard, and we crave recognition for it. What’s wrong with that? Nothing! In my ideal world, we would all get the chance to compete among roaring onlookers, people chanting our names as our co-workers, doing the wave, urge us toward our goal of improving overall performance by the end of the fiscal year. Sure we’d drink it all in and smile in appreciation, but inside all we’d really be thinking about are the flood of lucrative endorsement deals that will soon be coming our way. Speaking of which, may I recommend Staples for all of your office supply needs?