Probably not. He was an exceptional, once-a-decade type of athlete. In fact, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he shattered the 200m world record, which, as a black man, was quite a statement in the pre-WW2 era right in the heart of the new rising Nazi ideology. Undoubtedly, his name should have reverberated through history as an icon and embodiment of hope against discrimination. But even though in some corners of the US Mack holds a special place in his fans' hearts, he is far from a household name. Reason being despite Mack achieving the near impossible, in that race, he crossed the finish line 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens. 0.4 seconds behind a man who moved on to become a legend in the history books. By contrast, Robinson spent much of his life after that sweeping streets and ushering fans in baseball games.
0.4 seconds between sweepings halls and hall of fame. All because Mack was pitted against one of the most talented sprinters of all time.
At some point, we have all felt the genetic blackjack table has dealt us bad cards. I felt this idea grinding inside my skull on multiple occasions when my so-called talents did not match up to my expectations. And standing back, I ask myself, why would this excuse be bullshit? Are genes not what drives the world of success? If I spent my youth training 30 hours a week, would I have had an Olympic gold medal or Tour de France yellow jersey on my wall? No. Suppose I applied all study techniques and burning the midnight oil through school. Would crowds of adoring fans herald me as the genius saviour of humanity with my knowledge? Sadly, no.
Studies confirm this depressing picture. Scientists showed that specific genetic markers correlate to elite athletic performance, and that general intelligence measures predict academic performance. Therefore, we are confident that achieving high grades and attaining the podium's top step originates mainly from the universe playing dice with our parents' available genetic ingredients.
When we look to the storytelling realm, every sports drama thrives on the tale of the victorious underdog. We love that narrative because it pulls on the widespread dream of winning against all odds, knocking the favourite off the top step and taking that place for ourselves. In contrast, the story of Mack Robinson hardly ever makes it to the writers' coffee shops in Hollywood because that part of life sucks.
Tim Notke captured this concept best with "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." The grim, underlying principle here is that when the gifted and the average both work hard, the talented is all but guaranteed to win.
So what hope do us average Joe's have?
To get there, first, take a few minutes, find a quiet spot and ask yourself these questions –
What really drives you?
What sparks your interest in such a way that you will tinker away until 2am because it has to be just right?
Do you need to be world-class at everything you spend time on, or is basic mastery good enough for some aspects?
Do you really have a yearning desire to become an Olympian? Do you really want to be the next academic wunderkind?
What does a fulfilled life mean to you?
When we lie on our deathbeds, the concept of a fulfilled life might look very different to us than it would for the Elon Musks of this world. But "meaning" is such an elusive and abstract concept that even the most self-aware of us could spend a lifetime searching for but feel we never attain it. The main reason this is so tricky results from the tension between our instincts and our higher selves.
Let me break that down quickly. All life on this planet carries an inherent drive to keep going, which means passing on the most suited genes to the next generation. It is not enough to have the most sought-after attributes; we need our potential mating partner to notice them, which is where competition comes into play. Competition has been baked into our DNA; humans can't help themselves. We are compelled to compete! At home, as children, on the sports field, in the boardroom, everywhere. This drive does vary between individuals in the same way our other attributes do but make no mistake, it's part of all of us.
As humans societies evolved into more complex civilizations, our needs have adapted in kind. People want to express individuality while belonging to various communities and social groups. We are evolving to seek fulfilment above the basic instinctual need to keeping life going. Slowly but surely, we can see behaviour changing in our societies. Still, the one remnant of our genetic past that lingers is the drive to compete.
On various levels, competition is a necessary mechanism that moves civilizations forward through innovation. Still, in many individual journeys, competition is a remnant from our prehistoric past that stops us from focusing our energy on something much deeper and more meaningful – personal growth. It is essential to distinguish between a passionate drive to achieve our goals and a drive to compete against another. There is nothing wrong with chasing our dreams and goals with unrelenting fervour, here we are merely cautioning against the act of competing for the sake of competing.
But how can we change the behaviour?
It all starts with recognition. Recognize competition in your own life and in your own behaviour. Recognize when you are acting to further your own progress, or acting merely on the need to compete with others. Call it by name, write it down, and tell the cat. Shine the spotlight on those actions, and you will slowly be released from the bonds of your evolutionary programming. Talent and genetic advantages only have a stronghold over us in a world where pure competition is the goal. When progress or growth is the goal, we can let go of that excuse, focus on our definition of greatness, or even help others reach theirs. Most of us don't need to be Jessy Owens, but that doesn't mean we have to go through the same ordeals as Mack Robinson.
So you are passionate about academics – why are you competing to be the best student? The process is actually about learning and acquiring new knowledge. It is not about being the best in your class, it is about looking back at your life one day and being able to say you were the best YOU. The most powerful transformation we can make is shifting the focus of our growth from others to ourselves.
You might then reply, "My goal is to achieve mastery, but good grades do matter, and I am simply not smart enough." Luckily, we can arm ourselves with a host of learnable skills, which we can use to launch us towards our own personal targets. Instead of spending our time and energy competing, we can chip away at our goals every day.
Time. It is a primary ingredient of this universe. With enough determination and time, we can grind mountains down to molehills.