There can be something uniquely energising about the experience of finishing second instead of first. Adam Leive, an economist at the University of Virginia, assembled a database of medal winners in Olympic track and field events, between 1846 and 1948, and looked at what happened to their lives after they had won a medal.
Leive found that the athletes who just missed out on the top podium spot went on to live longer and more successful lives than those who won. Silver medallists were more ambitious in their post-sport careers, finding better paid jobs. By the age of 80, about half of them were still alive, compared to about a third of gold medallists.
The trauma of losing seems to have spurred them on for life.
Just behind the leader
It’s a phenomenon which extends beyond sport. A recently published paper in the journal Physics and Society shows evidence that scientists who suffer setbacks early in their career perform better in their careers than others.
The authors, Yang Wang, Benjamin Jones and Dashun Wang, looked at the data on grant proposals made by junior scientists applying for funds from the US National Institutes of Health. They identified two groups: “near-miss” individuals, whose grant proposals fell just below the funding threshold, and “near-win” individuals, who scraped in just above the threshold.
Just as UK Sport found with athletes, losing out acted like a form of natural selection. About one in 10 of the near-missers disappeared from the system altogether, but those who persevered went on to publish more high-impact papers over the following decade than the near-winners.
Childhood setbacks may have a similar effect on the arc of a life. The psychologist Marvin Eisenstadt, in a study entitled Parental Loss and Achievement, found that from a random sample of 573 eminent people who merited more than one column in encyclopaedias, nearly half had had a parent die before they were 20. Nobody would wish the loss of a parent on any child. It means a higher risk of mental health problems later in life. But it’s also true that a surprising number of high-achievers have suffered bereavement or some other kind of trauma as children.