Better than you?


From time to time the fact that our children are not taking enough exercise, are eating too much and are likely to have lower life expectancy than preceding generations triggers a debate around getting them more active.  One side argues that what is needed is non-competitive sport.  They argue that children who never win, indeed can never expect to win become demoralised and give up before they discover the joys of sport. The counter view is that competitive sport is vital to a child’s development.  It teaches how to win and lose, the element of competition improves effort and performance.  This argument is presented as an either/or choice.  You have non-competitive ‘exercise’ or you have competition.

I do think that this rather misses the point.

25-30 years ago my Dad was paying me a visit and I was running a 10k race one evening.  I was, at that time, a very committed runner.  I was in good shape and thought I could get a good time.  So I asked him to come on down and watch the race.  It was a local race with a small field in the seaside town where I lived.  From the start we climbed a very steep cliff road, then an out and back course to plunge back down the hill ready for a seafront finish.  I wanted my Dad to be proud of me (what child does not?) and so pushed hard.  In the last stages of the race I was behind someone I knew always posted good times and I determined to hang on.  I pounded down the cliff and emptied myself in the finishing straight.  For me it was a very fast time, in fact a lifetime best that I have never beaten.  I nearly threw up with the effort.

When I met up with my Dad and while waiting to get the official time he looked puzzled “I don’t get it.  You were a long way behind the winners.  You had no chance of winning, so why bother?  You must be daft.  And this lot still finishing well they are beyond belief.”

I didn’t know it at the time but he had just summed up a zero sum view of the world.  In this world only the first place counts.  Second place is first loser.  And unless you can win there is no point in competing.

Much more recently the BBC presenter Clare Balding summed up an opposing view of the world.  After watching her brother run the London marathon her niece asked her if Daddy had won and she replied “Not quite.  Everyone did.”

I have never been lucky enough to run a big city marathon but even in the local races I take part in, the same spirit exists.    Other peoples times and positions are quite irrelevant.  They set a general benchmark of what is achievable and as such the competition spurs everyone on.  Apart from a few at the very front of the field we are all running our own race.  My winning does not prevent someone else from winning their own race.  I am competitive and I will race individuals from time to time during races, I’ll also shout encouragement to those I pass, I try to cheer the marshals and have even applauded spectators for cheering us all on.  When I have finished I sometimes wander back along the course to cheer on those still running.  You see it’s nice to win, but it’s nicer if we all win.

The problem with the zero sum model is that winning equates to beating. Every person who finishes in front of you diminishes your achievement.  Everyone behind you has to be ‘worse’ or inferior to you.  With this mindset it is hard to truly celebrate the success of others whether they are in front or behind you.  Winners don’t want to help losers (after all they might turn the tables) and winning is everything.

Sadly this attitude usually starts with the parents.  My Dad may not have understood why I race when I can’t win but at least he wasn’t overly pushy. We have all witnessed pushy parents, they crop up everywhere and the sports field and school sports day brings them out in droves.  All that matters is that their child wins and is seen to win. Their zero sum mentality that means that others have to lose and they are quite prepared to help that losing along.

There will always be someone better than you and this attitude can only lead to frustration and disappointment.

Fortunately I do think we can have it all.  We can have real competition, with winners and no losers.  We can all aim to be the best we can, to improve our performance, learn from those who are better than us and encourage and teach whenever we can. And if you think that isn’t possible then look at the finish line of any marathon and show me a loser.

There will always be someone better than you
Even if you’re the best
So let’s stop the competition now
Or we will both be losers

I’m ashamed I ever tried to be higher than the rest
But brother I am not alone
We’ve all tried to be on top of the world somehow
‘Cause we have all been losers

I don’t wanna be laid down
No I don’t wanna die knowing
That I spent so much time when I was young
Just trying to be a winner

So I wanna make it clear now
I wanna make it known
That I don’t care about any of that shit no more

Robbie Williams _ Losers


Lost in the Supermarket


Today Tesco posted a 6% fall in profits, with like for like sales down 1.4%.  This is the second year running that they have declined.  They are not the only major UK supermarket to be struggling. According to the BBC “Recent industry figures showed the UK’s “big four” supermarkets – Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s – all lost market share in the first 11 weeks of this year to rival discount stores, as well as upmarket rivals Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.”

Ever keen to look for an external cause the finger has been pointed at the continental upstarts that have dared to open in the UK  in recent years.  Disparagingly referred to as “discounter’s”, these retailers, most notably Aldi, Lidl and Netto offer a no frills experience that undercuts our established incumbents.

In an edition of Question Time (the BBC’s political panel show) this subject came up and the left wing representative used the opportunity to make the point that the current economic problems had created an underclass so deprived that they have no choice but to turn to these discounters.

I don’t doubt that many people have found money a little tight and this may have tempted them to try the discounters but the success of these challengers is not entirely due to poverty.

When on holiday in Europe we often take a villa and do some self catering.  If we find an Aldi we consider ourselves lucky.  The range is good, prices keen and quality excellent.  Yet I hadn’t tried an Aldi in the UK.  I related shopping at Aldi here with ‘being poor’ and no one wants to be poor, or seen to be poor.  Indeed the view that  you have to be part of a deprived underclass to shop at the discounters was prevalent.  However my daughter’s dance lessons cause us to drive past an Aldi almost every day.  And I don’t mind admitting that saving a few pounds is also important.  Hesitantly at first, apologetically even, my wife went in and bought a few things.  No one in the family complained, there were even compliments about some of the produce.  She returned and tried more.  Now I often shop there, in fact I popped in last night.

Increasingly I find that once I admit to shopping at Aldi others ‘fess up too.  We cheerfully compare prices and smugly feel better about ourselves.  The economy may have helped but there seems to be a growing number of people who can feel comfortable without the security of the ‘big 4’ supermarkets and the brands they sell. Admittedly Aldi is a brand itself, appealing to value conscious consumers who don’t care about or can’t afford to care about labels.  Mine isn’t the only Mercedes in the car park either.

The problem facing the ‘Big 4’ is not just that discounters are cheaper than them, there is no longer any stigma attached to using them.   Furthermore the ‘Big 4’ got big by appealing to a broad range of shoppers.  In the internet world of endless choice that translates as blandness.  If you want a bargain go to a discounter and if you want the best go to Waitrose.  Tesco and others sit uncomfortably in the middle with no real identity.  The CEO of Tesco, Philip Clarke,  stumbled over this point when challenged by John Humphrey’s on this morning’s Today show:

‘Fill in this blank,’ said Humphrys. ‘I go to Waitrose for quality, I go to Aldi for value. I go to Tesco for… ?’ At which point Clarke made some comment about Parma Ham.  Having said that no one could beat discounters on price he then outlined a ‘strategy’ which was to cut some prices and carry out some store makeovers.

We’ve read a lot about the way the big Supermarkets use their purchasing power to beat suppliers into offering unsustainable prices and pay low wages on zero hours contracts.  Surely this means that no one could beat their prices?  Well it isn’t hard to understand.  The discounters are all about value, amongst other things they don’t take credit cards (which charge a commission), the tills are designed to be very fast (to reduce the number of staff) and the displays are simply adequate as is the service.  But the real difference is that in Europe work on a much smaller margin than is normal in the UK.  That’s right, they make less profit.  In % terms less than half than that of the UK based behemoths.  In the UK they can make more profit and still undercut the competition.

Ever wondered why so many European utility companies rushed to buy up our national assets in the form of energy and water companies?  Again they are used to making much smaller margins on the continent than is normal here.  They didn’t have to cut prices as no one rocked the boat and led on price.  A nice cosy, profitable few years followed.  Hopefully we’ll start to see a real challenger brand in this space too.

The big question is what happens when the economy improves?  Will we all revert back to our comfortable known supermarkets and brands?   I think that as a family we’ll continue shopping in Aldi and so will many others because the produce is good.  Not for everything, but for a lot.  The reality is that once you break free of the tyranny of big supermarkets you won’t want to go back, you can even start to look at other labels you can drop once you become comfortable with your own unbranded identity.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

Lost in the Supermarket – The Clash




In the past year I started running again.  In October I ran a half marathon and by following a pacemaker to about mile 8 I managed a pleasing time of 1 hour 48 minutes with a lot of optimism that I could improve on that. With the competitive streak in me being given full rein I entered what was billed as a flat and fast half marathon in spring with the aim of getting a better time. In fact I had a spread of target: worst case 1:45, best 1:40.

Unfortunately an injury restricted my training over the winter, with barely any running at all until February and only then with caution.

A week before the race a friend commented that I was obviously ‘…very serious in doing that race.  It’s very competitive and full of really good athletes, all proper runners.’ My injury had flared up again and just getting to the start line was my current target.

On the morning of the race, with rain sheeting down, my injury aching and my wife telling me that ‘no one was making me do this’, I set off with many reservations.  It was clear at the start line that indeed everyone did look  like ‘proper runners’.  However the rain had stopped and despite a cool breeze and overcast skies it now looked like a good day to run.

In distance running, as in many things, pace is everything.  If you set off too quickly you might ‘blow up’ and end up with having a terrible time in all ways.  Running at a even pace is desirable and a ‘negative split’ i.e. the second half faster than the first is highly sought after. Yet it is notoriously hard to reclaim the time lost by setting off too slowly.

I had a decision to make.

Being more than a little competitive I decided to race it and hope to get 1:45 by running at just under 8 minutes a mile.  I’d do the first three miles at that pace and if all was well I’d hang on, if not I’d drop off at three miles to a steady and pain free rate.  The gun went off and there was the usual shuffle towards the line and then we broke into our stride.

Running has been transformed by technology.  In shoes I feel it is a bad thing but in providing data it is superb.  I was able to check my GPS watch to monitor my pace and in the early miles I did so frequently.  The first mile was 7 minutes 30 seconds.  Too fast, that would be good for a 1:38 race.  I slowed to 7.45 in mile 2, around the 1:41 mark.  This was still faster than planned but felt good. Given that I might well slow in the latter stages and the distance covered is usually more than 13.1 miles as you weave around other runners etc. I decided that this would work well for me. The next mile was about the same.

By now the field was strung out and I was running in a small group who were all running at the same pace.  I stopped checking my watch and settled into a rhythm, matching pace with those around me. A guy in those foot glove things pulled away from us easily and I wondered if it was faster barefoot, I let him go and stayed in the comfort of the group.  At the next mile marker a quick glance at my watch showed that we had slowed to 8.15.  I hadn’t noticed but I had slowed considerably.  I now had to push hard to get back up to my desired pace and doing so put me in no-man’s land between groups.  Over a mile or so I caught then passed the next group and saw foot glove guy up ahead.

By mile 8 I was running just behind foot glove guy and was having to work to hold the pace, whilst he looked effortless. We chatted about barefoot running and past races.  Then I noticed that again the pace had slowed.  Now I had a real dilemma.  I could run with foot glove guy, we’d no doubt hit the 1:45 target I’d settled for at the start and it was tough enough holding this pace even though we were slowing.  Or I could push on, pick up the pace and venture into no man’s land again, risking really struggling later on.

I pushed.

I could barely manage a sprint finish  at the end, but with a time of 1:43 I was very pleased.  With no injuries and better training 1:40 is likely – in fact I am thinking about 1:35 as a target!

Back home I could barely stay awake.  As I lay on the couch with a celebratory bottle of red I reflected on the event.  I could have cried off , I had good reason.  I could have turned up but taken it easy.  I could have settled into a nice steady pace and ‘raced’ in the first group, maybe feeling good about a nice pick up in the last mile to break away and beat them all.  I could have stayed with foot glove guy and achieved my target.

It struck me that in many things the targets we set and who we compete against affects our results.  Hitting an easy target is hardly an achievement.  Racing in a slow group is good for the ego and hurts less, but leads to mediocre results.    As our performance fluctuates we have to adapt our targets and who we see as the competition. It would be stupid of me to have tried to race the winners (1:12), but I can hold them up as examples of excellence to see what I might learn from them and one thing they do is keep pushing themselves.

The truth is that in life and business we have to run our own races.  If we seek excellence we have to set tough goals and compare ourselves to excellent competition. We have to keep pushing. We must take calculated risks. And we have to continually review how we are doing against our targets and our real competition, not against those who just happen to be around at the time.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

Time Pink Floyd



New Beginning

Last night I was very honoured to be invited to a former colleague and dear friend’s retirement party.  We recalled my first day at the company she was retiring from, when she met me at the door to direct me to a car park, walked me to my desk and made me feel welcome and part of the team from the off.

Driving home I reflected on my own feelings.  I admit to feeling a little melancholic.

Beginnings and endings are times of transition, uncertainty and can be messy. We can feel anxiety, rejection, curiosity, excitement, anticipation, fear, sometimes anger and loss.

Endings tend not to be so eagerly anticipated as beginnings.  They might happen unexpectedly, but even when we are able to plan we tend to be less willing to look forward to an ending.  I often allow things to fade away rather than mark the end.  This results in a lack of closure which is not always satisfactory.

The thing is both beginnings and endings we have already experienced heavily influence how we anticipate and experience future events. Personally I have experienced some great beginnings and so look forward to them.  I have also experienced some difficult endings and so avoid them.  This also probably explains my slightly downbeat mood.

I am pleased to report that this was not in any way a traumatic ending.  Although I sense a feeling of loss this ending was properly marked, recognised and given closure.  In fact retirement can be seen as a new beginning.  In this case one in which the buzz of corporate life is exchanged for much more pleasurable duties as a Grandparent.

And I realised that even the traumatic endings of my past were, with 20:20 hindsight, new beginnings.  New beginnings that had lead to great things.

So thanks Jen for being a great PA, for being a friend and for helping me to recognise a beautiful truth about endings.

The whole world’s broke and it ain’t worth fixing
It’s time to start all over, make a new beginning
There’s too much pain, too much suffering
Let’s resolve to start all over make a new beginning

Now don’t get me wrong I love life and living
But when you wake up and look around at everything that’s going down
All wrong
You see we need to change it now, this world with too few happy endings
We can resolve to start all over make a new beginning

Tracy Chapman New Beginning



Today the British Prime Minister dismissed the current concerns about smog over the UK saying :

“I didn’t go for my morning run this morning. I chose to do some work instead. You can feel it.  But it’s a naturally occurring weather phenomenon. It sounds extraordinary, Saharan dust, but that is what it is.”

Well that’s not entirely true is it?  The truth is that we have our own pollution created largely from burning of fuels which has built up due to a stable high pressure weather system.  This weather pattern then drew in polluted air from the continent.  To this toxic, but largely invisible (and so unnoticed) mix was added sand blown into the atmosphere by strong winds across the Sahara.  Only the last part of this is in any way natural.

We are told that as the weather shifts to the usual westerly direction the air will come from the Atlantic and be much cleaner, blowing the pollution away. Presumably to Europe, thus creating an export we should not be proud of.

Annually 29,000 die prematurely in the UK from air pollution. Globally the figure is 7 million according to the WHO. That’s more than Aids, smoking, road accidents and diabetes combined, and makes it the world’s single biggest environmental health risk. Whilst the combination of factors have created a highly visible ‘perfect storm’ in the UK the fact is that air quality falls below European standards regularly.  Yet there seems to be no action taken, indeed there have been criticisms of ‘over reaction’ levelled at climatologists.  When we are told not to exercise outside and children are kept indoors at school breaks I think it should make headline news.

With my coaching clients I often use Stephen Covey’s concept of circles of concern/influence, to which I add control.  Surely this is a matter over which, regardless of my concern I have little influence and no control.  On that analysis I would better spend my time on those things that I can control or influence.  Whether it is correctly attributable to Burke or not, it feels like the right time to use the quote

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

I can influence by raising awareness and I can personally reduce my own trail of pollution.  With that in mind my wife went off to work on her trusty bike this morning – risking her own health to save adding to the toxic brew we call an atmosphere.

What can you do to make a difference, however small?


Walk in silence,
Don’t walk away, in silence.
See the danger,
Always danger,
Endless talking,
Life rebuilding,
Don’t walk away.

Atmosphere – Joy Division