As England settles back after the Olympics, I thought it a good time to think about aspects of the Olympic Opening Ceremony. From the straw poll I’ve conducted, (and according to BBC research, approximately 50% of our population – 29 million – watched), there was one strong message from people I talked to – it made us proud to be British.
To hear so many talking like this is surprising since in my experience, we British are generally sceptical and doubtful. As a race, we fear humiliation – and the opportunities for worldwide custard pies at the Olympics was enormous. The hail of criticism, finger wagging and head shaking amongst us British was quite intense and characteristic prior to the event. The press feasted on stories of incompetence, wastefulness and extravagance. We were being tee’d up for a shambles.
I turned on the TV with no enthusiasm and my heart sank when I saw the may-poles, milkmaids, ducks and a facsimile of Glastonbury Tor. “Oh no,” I thought, “the rural idyll! We’re in for all the banal, obvious and stereotypical views of England – tedious and embarrassing military bands in bearskins, the weight of history and blah, blah tourist messages about Churchill, the Beatles, the Houses of Parliament (yes, the Closing Ceremony!).
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest engineers and visionaries of the Victorian period was portrayed magnificently by Kenneth Branagh. His alternative role was Hades, Lord of the Underworld. It became particularly resonant when the tree was pulled from the ground. Out poured dark figures marching purposefully to tear up the grass and wild flowers. As you as bright readers know, Hades suddenly appeared out of a crack in the ground to snatch Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the Earth and took her back to his realm of darkness and death. Not for nothing was the music composed by “Underworld”!
The rural idyll was torn up and taken away to be replaced by phallic smoking chimneys, frock-coated, bewhiskered, top hatted men in black and hoards of workers operating machinery and out of the darkness and chaos was made the 5 Olympic rings, symbols of the 5 continents unified in this sporting endeavour. And throughout it all presided the benign presence of Hades – Brunel – Branagh.
I imagine every athlete there has faced their dark loneliness. They’ve had to turn away from the innocent comfort of the safe and known, of being one of the many to take that big leap of being singled out. They have had to make sacrifices – of their teenage years, their friendships, their safe lives – to become one of the best. They’ve taken the risk of believing in themselves, in the possibility of winning, of excellence. A very scary, lonely place – since as you’ll appreciate, the bet they place is on winning, not losing. They have had to contend with their doubt, their uncertainty, their fear – and overcome it, maybe over and over again. Brave people.
That’s why we continue to honour them. As they processed around the stadium in that Opening Ceremony (clothed in some unfortunate fashion statements!) to the cheers of the crowd, you could see them full of hope, of possibility.
Every time you open yourself to learning something new, you make yourself vulnerable. You take the risk of being incompetent and uncertain once more – as you were when a child. It takes humility to become the follower, the pupil – the disciple. To be a good disciple requires self discipline. According to Steve Pavlina, the five pillars of self discipline are:
- Will power
- Hard work
To be excellent at what you do takes years, and many mistakes. And each mistake brings you more learning and closer to excellence.
Each time you present or speak in public, you are opening yourself to more mistakes and more learning. You risk humiliation. It takes courage to do what most people find uncomfortable. The more you make yourself vulnerable, the more your courage is tested. The only failure is not to attempt it.
Like the athletes, your prize may be fame, it may be riches. Though really, the only prize worth keeping your eye on is in knowing you’re excellent at what you do.