Incredibly, there are 10 University of Wisconsin-Madison hockey players between the U.S. and Canadian women’s national teams. As a lifelong Badger sports fan, it’s an understatement to say I’m dialed in to women’s Olympic hockey.
Clearly, so is fellow UW alum Jason Gay, the sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal. In his Feb. 8 column, Gay likens the U.S.-Canada women’s hockey rivalry to the Ali vs. Frazier rivalry—one of the all-time best in all of sports. While acknowledging that crazy things happen (like the 1980 men’s team “Miracle on Ice” performance!), Gay predicts a USA vs. Canada contest for the gold medal is “as close to a lock as there is in sports.”
That makes for great hockey—but one big problem. Some of those 10 Badger women are going to walk away with a silver medal.
Think that through for a second. These 10 women are on the same college team. Instead of working together to defeat an opponent, two groups of them are pitted against each other. One group will be crowned best in the world. The other will walk away…well, as losers?
The misery of Silver
If you were to ask someone, “Would you be happier winning an Olympic silver medal or a bronze medal?” you’d probably be told, “Silver.” Yet several scientific studies have shown that bronze medal winners are almost twice as happy with their accomplishments as silver medal winners.
In fact, during the period immediately after their performances, silver medal winners are closer to miserable than ecstatic. Logically, this seems absurd. That a silver medalist would feel misery rather than joy after performing better than everyone else in the world (save one) demonstrates the destructive nature of a comparative mindset.
My grandma used to say to me, “Joey, things are rarely good or bad in and of themselves. They are good or bad based on what you compare them to.” She had a good sense for how one’s frame of reference affects comparisons.
For those miserable silver medalists, the frame of reference is the one human being in the world who is better than them. Silver medalists tend to ruminate on how close they got to gold, leading to deep regret and lingering unhappiness.
Bronze medalists, on the other hand, have a different frame of reference. Instead of “looking up” to make comparisons, they tend to “look down” to all the competitors who didn’t medal. They recognize that everyone from the fourth-place finisher on down worked hard and walked away with no medal. With this alternate frame of reference, bronze medal winners feel blessed and happy in their accomplishment.
What Investors Can Learn from Michelle Kwan
There are exceptions to the “misery of silver medalists” pattern. Michelle Kwan was highly favored to win figure skating gold in the 1998 Olympics. She skated a flawless, mistake free short and long program. Yet she came away with the silver medal because her teammate, Tara Lipinski, skated a once-in-a-lifetime performance that was even better.
Unlike most silver medal winners who “lost the gold,” Kwan expressed genuine happiness. She had controlled what she could, did her best, and came away satisfied and fulfilled. She embraced the intrinsic rewards of her personal accomplishment.
And that’s the key to escaping the misery of comparative thinking: focus on intrinsic rewards instead of framing success in comparative terms. That’s what I hope Tess Ledeux is doing this week. Earlier this week, the French skier—who was favored to win gold in the inaugural women’s freeski big air event—landed a jump with the largest rotation ever in a women’s event: 1620 degrees. But then, incredibly, Eileen Gu pulled off a trick she’d never once completed in either practice or competition. She, too, landed a 1620 in what was certainly a run of her lifetime (so far), to come away with gold.
So, although it might sound trite, I genuinely wish Ledeux, Gu and all 10 of those Badger women the true happiness of intrinsic rewards—that while competing hard for the gold, they also feel the inherent joy of their sports.
I’ll be watching and cheering!