The photo below right was taken at the men’s 100 metres final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
I can’t quite recall what happened to the poor ailing chap in lane two, but with arm outstretched, Canada’s Ben Johnson has raised his finger aloft to the heavens to signify that he is just about to complete the fastest 100 metres in history at a blistering 9.79 seconds.
To Johnson’s left in the centre-right of shot, also in red, Carl Lewis of the USA can only look on in utter dismay.
Despite coasting to what should have been the fastest race in history at well under 10 seconds, Lewis had to accept that he wasn’t anywhere near the fastest in the field on that fateful day.
If you play back a video of this infamous event, Carl Lewis was interviewed almost immediately after the finish of the race.
After expressing confusion and disbelief at Johnson’s flying start, Lewis noted unconvincingly that he was “happy with my race” (while actually looking anything but).
Athletes are trained to concentrate on their own game, rather than that of their opponents – or to “control the controllables” in psychologist-speak.
It’s almost impossible to do completely, of course, as Lewis so neatly betrayed in his post-race laments.
Playing field not level
Two days later it transpired that the race had not been held on a level playing field, when Johnson was disqualified after testing positive for drugs.
The gold medal was thus awarded to Carl Lewis, and Britain’s Linford Christie was in turn upgraded to be awarded the silver.
I could finish the blog post right here, of course.
We should all concentrate on our own progress rather than comparing ourselves too readily with others.
After all, we may never really know the full story, and life is rarely held on a level playing field.
All not as it seemed…
Yet further subsequent event and results led the race to be labelled with the moniker “the dirtiest race in history”, with no fewer than seven of the eight participants being linked to or implicated in drug scandals.
Arguably the true gold medal should belong to the sprinter to the far right of shot in lane one – Robson da Silva – who ran 10.11 seconds on the day and was never in any way linked to drugs throughout his career.
For all we know, life’s playing field may be even less level than we can ever conceptualise!
Run your own race
Perhaps there are some valuable lessons to be learned here for the way we invest, and indeed the way we live our lives in general.
While it is human nature to compare ourselves all too often with our peers, it is not necessarily always helpful for us to do so.
For all we know, the playing field may not even be remotely level.
I’m not insinuating here that your friends are on drugs (although, of course, that cannot be ruled out) – rather that all of us have different backgrounds, skills, goals, wants and desires, needs, strengths and weaknesses.
Some of us start out in life with absolutely nothing, while others inherit incredible wealth.
Some are destined to be great business leaders; others have an entirely different skill set.
Each of us will suffer different setbacks, yet encounter random strokes of luck too.
All of us have different risk profiles and portfolios, so what is common sense for one investor might be disastrously risky for another.
Comparing our own journey to that of our peers can correspondingly be fraught with danger.
Monte Carlo fallacy
Anyone who has been to a casino to play roulette will be familiar with the concept of the Monte Carlo fallacy – if not the term, then at least the concept.
Humans mistakenly believe that we can project accurately what will happen in the future based upon what has occurred in the recent past.
In truth, predicting the future is absolutely not possible, so we must work with probabilities, and a longer term outlook can help us to deal with the inherent uncertainties.
Casino gamblers will also know that once you begin trying to recover losses through gambling with bigger stakes, things can rapidly begin to turn from bad to worse, or to outright disaster..
This is why trying to play “catch up” with other members of your peer group may be an ill-advised venture.
Slow and steady wins the race in investment, and often, in life.
Run your own race!