Lessons from "Silver Medalists"
Because you will almost certainly never "take over the world"
In 2017, Ben Wilson started a podcast, “How to Take Over the World” (HTTOTW). In it, he offers lessons from luminaries like Napoleon, Steve Jobs, Alexander the Great, Thomas Edison and Julius Caesar. There is a reason the podcast has gained a following. Google “lessons from Steve Jobs” and you get 33,700,000 results. “Lessons from Caesar” returns 14,600,000 pages. “Lessons from Napoleon” returns 8,910,000 entries and “lessons from Walt Disney” garners 5,730,000.
But really, these are not the people you should be learning from.
To garner 33 million results on Google, an enormous number of people have to search the topic “lessons from Steve Jobs.” Maybe you have searched for it yourself. When so many people have the same interest in a topic, they read or listen to the same insights. Reading the same books as everyone else results in you having the same ideas as…..well, everyone else. You gain no advantage.
We can learn – or be reminded of – some useful precepts from Napoleon and Thomas Edison. Beyond the lessons, they lived interesting lives. I enjoy HTTOTW. The reality remains that only a vanishingly small number of people will ever get close to ‘taking over the world.’ We need other models to learn from.
These exemplars are the “Silver Medalists” – people who did not take over the world but who still made an indelible mark, aimed exceptionally high and “from whom something of worth has shone out to make them worthy of record,” in the words of Australian author, rancher and entrepreneur R.M. Williams.1 These Silver Medalists have run wildly profitable companies, produced stunning artwork, moved enormous armies and won sports championships. They have thrived in every age, country, profession and setting. They continue to do so today.
Who are these Silver Medalists? Let me describe some of them:
A dominant politician who navigated the storms of overwhelming political controversy through his brilliance and maneuverings, but who never won his country’s highest office.
An artist whose stunning talent was overshadowed by her husband’s fame.
The most accomplished explorer of his age, he rarely garnered the attention of his more famous, but less adroit, contemporaries.
In addition to the edge accrued from assimilating wisdom others haven’t touched, I found another reason to dive into the lives and lessons of these men and women: accessibility. They appear more real to us mere mortals; their lessons speak to us more closely; we can absorb their teachings into our own lives more readily than, say, Caesar or Elon Musk.
Does the notion of Silver Medalists lower our sights? Shouldn’t we learn from those supreme exemplars of history, and not their staff assistants? Why should we aim to be second-best?
Becoming a Silver Medalist remains aspirational. Becoming a Silver Medalist is incredibly hard! Most people won’t even become Silver Medalists – falling by the wayside, losing verve and drive somewhere along the uneven path. The people we will encounter in this series toiled for years – sometimes decades – before the hint of greatness, or the opportunity for its pursuit, emerged from the shadows. Earning the silver medal takes resourcefulness, dogged determination and damn hard work. Quite the opposite of lowering our sights, in taking lessons from Silver Medalists, we reinvigorate our own inclinations toward actualizing our potential in the present moment.
And yet, approaching life as a Silver Medalist keeps us humble. We will not be taking over the world. Someone else will almost always be our boss, run a bigger company, or raise more money in their series B round or IPO. Nearly all the lives of the Silver Medalists I have found navigate this river between the dangerous rocks of overweening ambition and insipid feelings of futility.
I hope you will enjoy reading about these women and men as much as I have enjoyed plumbing the depths of their lives for sagacity and encouragement – accessible, relatable and usable lessons for our lives today.
Next week, I will release the first essay examining one of these Silver Medalists in detail, culling out the salient learnings from his extraordinary – and forgotten – life.