Each of us has tried out for teams (sports or otherwise), applied for jobs, and/or extended an invitation to another. There are and always will be times when the result is not to our liking. We don’t always make the final roster or get hired, and our invitations are sometimes declined. It’s always nice to be selected for the opportunities we are intending to create and when we don’t get what we want, it’s important to think about why the outcome is not what we desired.

Last weekend, my wife and I accompanied our son to a swim clinic with Olympians Misty Hyman and Anthony Ervin. ¬†They spent a few hours in the pool, but it was the advice they gave about life outside the pool that was of greatest value. I was specifically struck by Misty’s recollection of her Olympic gold-winning race at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Some may remember that she shocked the world by upsetting the highly favored Australian, Susie O’Neill, to win the 200M butterfly. She did so by swimming the race of her life and executing her plan exactly as she had practiced. She swam 2:05:08, which was an Olympic Record. As she tells the story, she knew she had won before looking at the scoreboard. She knew she had won before she was aware of her time. She knew she had won because she did everything she could to reach her potential on race day and she swam the game plan exactly to script. She realized she could not control what happened in the lanes to her left and right, but she had complete ownership of what happened in her lane. She won by her definition and enjoyed the bonus that was winning by the more traditional metric.

When we are running a race against time or competing with another in a forum that has clearly defined rules and specifies a “winner”, the gap between our goal time and our finishing time is of consequence, as is the gap between first place and the rest of the field. However, outside of the athletic arena or standardized tests, there is rarely an explainable gap between the person we hire and the one we do not; the gap between the final member selected for the team and the final member cut from the roster; or the invitation declined in favor of the one we accept. There is clearly a difference, but there is not a gap.

A recent selection board chose some very talented Naval Officers for their next career milestone, while leaving other talent on the sidelines. (Note: As I like to say it is far better to have more talent than opportunity than it is to not have enough talent to fill the opportunities). In conversations with a few of my Shipmates, they asserted that the gap between those on the list and those not on the list must have been “paper thin.” As I considered that statement, and having first hand knowledge of many of the individuals on both sides of the list, I don’t see a gap at all. I do see differences, some more significant than others, but I don’t see a gap. The main reason there is no gap is because the criteria used for selection is so vague and subjective. I do not say that to detract from the process or the results. Whether we are in the military or career civilians, we navigate our own professional journey. As a result, we have unique experiences and are unique people with unique strengths. No better and no worse, we all have something different to offer and those making personnel decisions have a responsibility to identify the differences and select individuals uniquely equipped to succeed in the role to which they will ultimately be assigned.

Misty won gold by a gap of .7 seconds and the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVII by a gap of 35 points. 12 Years A Slave won the¬†Academy Award for best picture because it was deemed different in the right ways by the Board of Governors, and you were selected for a job, invited to a party, or are in a personal relationship with another because someone else deemed you different enough to pick you. In the black and white world in which far too many live, they see gaps and have a need to clearly distinguish between winners and losers in a rather impersonal and superficial manner. Those of us who call the land of grey “home” look a little deeper so we can both understand and appreciate the differences and find more meaningful ways (just as Misty did) to define winning (such as including process or the HOW as much as, if not more than, the result).

There are situations where gaps matter and ought not be ignored; there are at least as many situations where the gap tells a far less meaningful story; and there are still more situations where there are no gaps, only differences…

(Never)mind the gap, but always appreciate the difference.

  • How do you distinguish between members of your team…gaps or differences?
  • Were you overlooked for the last opportunity you wanted because you were lesser than or different from the others being considered?
  • How do you define winning?