“Don’t be the best, be the only one.” At least that’s what Kevin Kelly, a computer pioneer and co-founder of Wired magazine, advises. He said this on actor Alan Alda’s podcast a few weeks ago. We live in a world of open possibilities and at the same time a lot of competition, and if we want to be successful, the best way is to do what no one else is doing. Or start doing ordinary things differently.
Which is what I immediately thought of when I read on the news on Monday that Dick Fosbury had died at the age of 76. Legendary high jumper who won the 1968 Olympic gold medal.
Because Fosbury did exactly what Kevin Kelly advises. He jumped the bar like no one before him. On the back, head down and feet up. He stunned opponents and the world. Until then, athletes crossed the bar either with “scissors” or “with the middle” (they rolled over the bar sideways and face down), and especially the latter option was considered the standard.
A new technique that came to be called the “flop” revolutionized athletics. She didn’t triumph right away, and it took another decade for athletes using different styles to compete (and win). But since the 1980s, there have been virtually no flops at the top level.
Fosbury was not a born athlete. He was tall and thin, with poor coordination and eyesight. In high school, he had trouble overcoming the height of 150 centimeters with “scissors”. But at the same time, he wanted to be better, to at least get into the school selection. He tried different methods and styles and found that the least intuitive one worked best. When he jumps “backwards”.
A number of legends then circulated among the athletes, for example that Fosbury invented the flop so that he once tripped on the way to the bar during the start and had no choice but to jump backwards.
Or that the “flop” came about because he didn’t know how to “scissors” well enough and found that if he pulled out his hips and then quickly lifted his legs, he would be able to jump higher. However, the truth is probably neither.
Fosbury went about it “engineering” and tried to figure out if there was some way to arrange so that the center of gravity of the body could remain as low as possible. Because he can’t get it as high as top runners.
Eventually he figured it out and it flopped. Fosbury was lucky to have a coach who didn’t force him to jump “correctly” and let him try new ways. He faced taunts from coaches and classmates alike. He wanted to win athletic events, but he was looked upon as a clown and a freak. They said he was breaking the rules, defying the laws of nature, risking injury. They advised him to stick to the classics.
Fosbury even coined a term for his high jump technique. Rather, he was responsible for the fact that “flop” came to be used for her. “To flop” means to fall or flop, figuratively, failure.
Fosbury claimed that a local newspaper in Oregon (the Medford Mail-Tribune) published a photo of him jumping at some races in 1964 with the headline: “Fosbury Flops Over Bar.” Fosbury slaps himself over the bar. Similar to how fish sometimes slap themselves on land, he explained.
And when someone later asked him what his style was called, he thought to answer: Slap. Fosbury’s slap. Fosbury Flop. It caught on.
A photo of Fosbury’s winning jump from the Mexican Olympics sometimes appears in management manuals or lectures. The message is clear: if you want to achieve something extraordinary, you must try to think differently than others. “Out of the box”, even sounds a well-known cliché.
But it’s not that simple. We know from everyday life that a useful rule of thumb for life is to do what others do instead. When you’re driving on the highway and everyone else starts to slow down, it’s always best to slow down too. And when others start running in one direction on the street, it would be foolish to run in the opposite direction.
Evolution has hardwired herd behavior into us. We humans talk about it derisively, but in most cases it pays off. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try to do things differently, as Kevin Kelly advises or as Dick Fosbury did.
A prerequisite for success is rationality, i.e. the ability to see the world as it is. Creativity means that you think differently about the world than others. And innovation is then an attempt to do what no one has done before you. With the risk that it will very often not work out.
We admire Fosbury because he made it work. He won a gold medal and fame while still a student. He graduated from Oregon State University in 1972. He founded a construction company that, among other things, designed and built running and cycling tracks. He met his wife at dance lessons. He was a kind and pleasant man, one of those whom it is easy to wish success to.
I write this because for every extraordinary person like Fosbury, there are at least 99 others who have the same courage and desire to do things original and different. And they try, tirelessly and, from the point of view of many, probably naively. But without success. That’s why we don’t know their names and most of the time we don’t even realize that they exist.
But as they sometimes say, failure is not the opposite of success, but only part of it. Very often so significant that the success is not even visible. One more thing I like: Fosbury was described as “the world’s laziest athlete” after his Olympic triumph. He didn’t want to train like everyone else, so he invented a new way to win effortlessly.
With great exaggeration, of course. How’s that for an alleged Bill Gates quote? “I always hire the laziest person for a difficult job. Because he will find the easiest way to do it.’
Why the alleged quote? Because it has not been proven that Bill Gates ever said that. It was probably invented by someone lazy and completely unknown. And his innovation to popularize this idea was to attribute it to someone successful. For example, the richest man in the world at the time. Quite a flop, don’t you think?