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When trying to achieve superhuman results, never forget that you are surrounded by humanity.

Consider the case of poor Johannes Coleman, a South African marathon runner in the 1930s. He was a talented racer – he finished sixth in the marathon in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin – and in 1938 he was at the peak of his career. He was running the annual Natal Marathon that year, a race he had already won twice before, and this time he knew his time was something special. In fact, as he neared the end of the course, he was certain he was going to set a new world record.

At that time, the world record time for a marathon race was 2:26. By the time he reached the final mile of the race, Coleman had figured he would finish handily within that time – possibly by three full minutes. As he entered the stadium for the final dash towards the finish, he felt the thrill of knowing that his name would go down in racing history as one of the all-time greats. He crossed the finish line ready to bask in the glory of accomplishment and fame.

Unfortunately, there was no official at the finish line waiting to record his achievement.Cup_of_tea_and_bourbon_biscuit

Knowing that the fastest marathon yet run had taken a full 146 minutes, the official timekeeper had nipped off for a spot of tea, believing he still had a few minutes left before the arrived. He was away from his post when Coleman crossed the line. The timekeeper returned apologetically, and acknowledged that Coleman finished in first place and would be awarded the win, but explained that, without an official timekeeper present, there was no official time to report. The man who had just run the fastest marathon of all time would not get credit for it, only because of someone else’s poor judgment.

And that was it. Coleman still had some good runs left in him. He took home the gold in the Empire Games (forerunner to today’s Commonwealth Games) held in Sydney, Australia, later that year. He even competed in the 1948 London Olympics ten years later and just missed the podium with a fourth-place finish. But he never again scored a time close to his technically-not-world-record-setting Natal Marathon finish.

Oh, the humanity. We are surrounded by it, and to err, as we all know, is human. Sometimes it seems like Sartre’s version of Murphy’s Law: Whatever other people can do wrong, they will do wrong. Even when we perform our best, we cannot be assured that someone else’s bad or even just mediocre performance won’t sabotage our efforts. It doesn’t always work out that way – indeed, sometimes we are saved from our own mistakes by the stellar efforts of others – but it’s always worth keeping in mind the possibility that it could. Caution, communication, and an occasional backup on standby can help prevent a lot of frustration and heartache. For example, a reminder e-mail a day or two before a deadline can be a lot more valuable than a complaint e-mail the day after. Try to find ways to make it easier for other people not to disappoint you. You’ll be happier to avoid the unforeseen snafus, and someday those you’ve supported are likely to do the same for you. Because, after all, you too are only human.