Bad news and the power of suspending judgment

December 7, 2022

by Ravi Raman

Michael slipped on a patch of ice getting into a friends car and fell. A self-proclaimed “klutz,” taking a tumble wasn’t out of the ordinary. This time, embarrassment wasn’t the problem. A lingering pain in his wrist meant something serious was going on. An MRI would reveal a fracture. Problematic for a professional athlete like Michael who relied on his entire body, particularly his arms, for success.

It was the fall of 2007 and this particular Michael was none other than Michael Phelps. The following year was the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and it was his dream to claim a record-setting 8 gold medals. We all know the result, Phelps miraculously succeeded in his quest.

However, what has been forgotten was just how tenuous the result was. In the final meters of the penultimate event at Beijing, the 100-meter butterfly, all seemed lost. You see, Phelps was perfectly tuned for a grueling middle-distance even like the 400-IM. Stepping down to a 100-meter sprint was a stretch. Doable, but everything needed to be perfect for a win.

Competing for a seventh gold, racing the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps was down by over half a body length going into the turn. Coming back from such a deficit is insurmountable at the world-class level in a fight for gold. He defied the odds by closing the gap and winning by a hair-splitting one-hundredth of a second. Watch a video of the event and see for yourself. It’s unbelievable just how close the result was. Even in slow motion, it doesn’t seem possible, that Phelps won!

But he did.

You see, life works in very mysterious ways. It may have been a good thing that Phelps broke his wrist the prior year!

Let me explain. To compensate for his bad luck and klutzy nature on dry land, his long-time coach Bob Bowman had him cross-training and swimming tedious kick-only sets in the pool. As a swimmer myself, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing more boring than kicking lap after lap in the pool! It’s slow and exhausting. You feel muscles you didn’t know existed.

The effort paid off for Phelps as his superhuman kicking power seems to have been the pivotal factor in his winning a seventh gold medal. Watching the 100-meter fly event, you can see how his kick powered his stroke with tremendous drive, particularly in the final push to the wall, while his competitors started to drag their legs like sand bags.

No one would wish for such bad luck in the lead-up to an Olympic performance. But the point of this story is that we don’t know what is good or bad. Who could have predicted that a tragedy would lead to the development of a skill that was pivotal for future success?

My insight from this story, and many like it – where unwelcome events lead to success – is that we never really know how what happens to us in life will impact our journey. Therefore, the only sensible response to life’s circumstances and outcomes is to suspend judgment and allow matters to unfold. Bad news turns into good results. Good results can turn into challenges. Challenges can turn into learning. Learning can create growth and future positive results.

There is a Taoist parable of the Chinese Farmer, a tale that has echoed this sentiment for thousands of years. When caught in judging life we miss the bigger picture. Hardship and challenging circumstances are never as bad as we think, and with enough perspective, they can be naturally seen as neither positive nor negative, but simply events that arise and lead to whatever comes next.

Ironically, the benefit of this way of viewing life is that the mind becomes remarkably clear and terrifically resilient. Such a mind, that is tuned to equanimity and able to roll with the punches, is a force to be reckoned with and capable of achieving remarkable things. Not unlike Phelps in the pool.

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