Have you ever invested time and energy into a project or a plan, only to see it all go to waste because of some other person’s impulse, misunderstanding, or oversight? How do you contend with those kinds of losses?
Adolf Schmal was 23 years old when he represented Austria in the 1896 Olympic Games – the very first Olympic competition of the modern era, held in Athens, Greece, to commemorate the Games’ origins in ancient Greece. Schmal was competing in the sabre competition, along with four other men – Holger Nielsen, from Denmark, and three Greek competitors. Schmal and one of the Greek swordsmen, Ioannis Georgiadis, were thought to be the favorites. The format of the competition was simple: every one of the five participants would face off against each of his competitors, and whoever had the best record at the end would be declared the winner.
Schmal started off well. In his first two matches, he faced Nielsen and Georgiadis, and defeated them both. At that point, he was virtually assured a medal, and was very likely to come in first place. First place in the first sabre competition in the first modern Olympic Games – a singular achievement Schmal could treasure for the rest of his life.
Just then, there was a commotion in the Zappeion, the large hall in which all fencing competitions were being held. Greece’s King George I, a fencing enthusiast, had arrived with the Crown Prince and their entourage. The king had come to watch the sabre competition.
By that point, the sabre competition was halfway done, but the event judges did not think it would be seemly to permit the king to view only half a competition. He was a king, after all, and king of the host country on top of that. So, in a move surely destined for entry into the Sycophant Hall of Fame, the sabre judges announced that they would be restarting the entire sabre competition. All the matches would be refought.
This time around, Schmal did not enjoy the same success. He lost to both Nielsen and Georgiadis the second time he met each of them, and in the end only won one match before the Greek king. Schmal finished in fourth place and did not qualify for a medal.
At least, not in fencing. For Schmal had come to Athens to compete in *two* athletic realms: fencing and cycling. When the fencing competition was over, he turned his attention to his other sport. Schmal managed to take 3rd place in both the 333 meter and the 10 kilometer racing events. Well enough to take medals home, but not the first place finish he craved. He had one last shot for a win: the final event of the Games, a 12-hour endurance race to see who could go the farthest in half a day.
Seven cyclists began the race, in which they circled the 333-meter track over and over and over again. The racers stayed together in a pack much of the time, and Schmal used this to his advantage. He pulled ahead of the pack and, by the tenth lap, managed to catch the pack from behind, lapping the other riders. From that point on, he simply kept up with the leader of the pack, not allowing anyone else to retake the extra lap he had gained on them. After twelve hours, only Schmal and one other racer remained on the track; Schmal had completed 945 laps, one more than his opponent’s 944, and so at the very last opportunity, Schmal won his first-place prize.
Fortunately for Schmal, King George I was not a fan of endurance bicycle racing.
Sometimes, forces beyond our control – sometimes even frustratingly arbitrary forces, like the whims of our leaders and those who pander to them – make hash out of our own plans and accomplishments. You can watch out for these forces, but you can’t eliminate them. The only way to protect your investment – of time, interest, and effort – is to diversify. Develop multiple skills, pursue multiple goals. Your talents and your accomplishments are your most valuable assets; develop a broad portfolio, and no single loss can ever wipe you out.