On creativity-rich endeavours

Like most people, I’ve experienced both huge success and abject failure in life. It’s part of the human condition.

The biggest success I’ve experienced in my life from a purely subjective point of view came as an eleven year-old. My success as a swimmer, and in particular at butterfly, made me feel superhuman.

If you’ll let me boast a little about something I did fully twenty-six years ago, I was unbeaten for over a season, won every trophy available to me, and felt like some sort of swimming god. Every time I went up to compete I knew I was going to win. That feeling is incredible.

But, in a move that will be understandable to those familiar with the work of Carol Dweck, swimming is not the kind of sport that lends itself to a growth mindset. So when I was twelve, I quit. Going to six training sessions per week, having blood taken from my ear(!) to work out my ‘threshold levels’ and moving up to compete against physically much stronger fourteen year-olds was too much.

Today, I’m at a swimming gala with my son. He trains three to four times per week, in amongst a whole host of other activities. So I’m not interested in comparing my success with his. Instead, I want to reflect on the kind of thing that swimming is.

Despite what a coach might say, swimming is mostly an individual pursuit. With the exception of relay events, you’re focusing on beating your best time and the people you’re up against. That’s it. There’s no style, creativity, or flair to it.

You can, of course, bring your personality into anything. So, it’s great watching Usain Bolt doing the 100m and looking like he’s jogging. But that’s only because he wins. Nobody cares if you’ve got an outsize ego when you lose.

Other sports aren’t like that. Take football, for example. England were knocked out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage yet have inspired many column inches with journalists waxing lyrical about their style of play. That’s important, I think. Football isn’t a game where all that matter is winning.

So why does any of this matter? Well, I want my children to realise that life is only about competing and winning when you want it to be. Most of the time, it’s about self-expression, teamwork, and trying your best. My favourite pursuits are those where I don’t have to conform to someone else’s idea of success, but instead get to choose my own goalposts, so to speak.

We set up these elaborate rituals to pit human beings against one another to see who comes out victorious. That’s great, and there’s certainly a place for that. But let’s not try and reduce everything to narrowly-defined, ultra-competitive pursuits. Let’s enjoy the stories, the creativity, and self-actualisation that comes from deciding what’s important to you and achieving that.