Sunday, August 17, 2008

Setting expectations

The Olympics have me ruminating on the extent that a superior performance conditions us to expect even more in the future, to the point where we miss great accomplishments. Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals in 1972, and that became the standard by which we measured all subsequent Olympians. Win four gold medals, and you're called "good, but no Mark Spitz." Let someone hit 68 home runs in baseball, which would be absolutely fantastic, but five short of Barry Bonds, and it will seem ho-hum.

I suppose this is natural, and even one of the ways we encourage people to do better in the future, but it relegates some pretty great feats to seeming insignificance. And it can put inappropriate pressure on people who have done great things - do we look at Michael Phelps, after he puts away his 18th gold in London in 2012 and ask, "Michael, since Dara Torres swam until she was 41, will you be back through 2024?" Maybe we will.

We make comparisons, it helps us put things in perspective and appreciate the truly outstanding (I do it myself). But we should try not to get so carried away that we ignore some marvelous events around us. The guy who wins five golds in London won't be a disappointment because he didn't match Phelps or Spitz; he will have done something remarkable, and, not out of fairness but because we need a sense of awe in our lives, we should enjoy it, and appreciate it, and feel good about it.

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