The Story of Sham: Competition, Failure and Greatness in Second Place

Secretariat & Sham

My younger sibling had a rival throughout high school school. They stood toe to toe in their subjects, perched at the top of their class — while jockeying to earn the respect and attention of their teachers. In the end, it appeared that my sister was deemed a very close second to her academic rival. The long-standing competition was clearly intense (not entirely sure it was healthy) and I’ve never asked my sister about how she viewed the experience. Things worked out in the end, as both attended a prestigious university. But, I’m confident that losing via a close competition was not be comfortable. Second place — can be a very challenging place. (Learn about the new research center at Columbia University examining failure here.)

Most of us would like to believe that with time and practice we might excel and possibly land at the top of the heap. However, both life and work are laden with disappointment, rejection and failure. We might think of the role or promotion that we didn’t quite earn — or the accolade in an area meaningful to us, that went to another. In many situations, a winner emerges and it is not us.

However, the key issue remains: How do we process the vital moments of work and career in which we were not that clear winner?

In that moment, how do we re-group and move forward?

Disappointments such as these, can certainly feel like failure.

Somehow, I can’t help but be reminded of the story of Sham — the incredible horse that had the untimely honor of being born the same year as Secretariat. (His fight to earn even a single leg of the Triple crown in 1973, was incredible). Sham was remarkable in his own right, identified early on as a potential champion. However, that was not meant to be. The reason for that outcome is both heartbreaking — and glorious — at the very same time. This excerpt from the LA Times story by Art Wilson in September of 1993, tells the story beautifully:

A son of Pretense might only naturally be called Sham. Still, it wasn’t a fitting name for this dark, leggy, elegant bay who rode alongside history instead of into it. By the clock, Sham would have won every other Kentucky Derby contested at a mile and a quarter. Through 118 Derbies, Secretariat and Sham remain the only entrants who ever came in under two minutes.

I’m often asked about what to do in the midst of disappointment or failure. My advice always remains the same: Give things time. These situations create a muddled fog concerning our own abilities and potential. When we suffer a setback, we cannot see the possibilities of another path that may lead to another valued, yet to be identified goal — that may prove equally as fulfilling. In my own life, this pops up frequently (in races of consequence and of lesser consequence). It is never easy.

As human beings, we have to deal with the aftermath of that lost race, as only human beings can do — with time, kindness and reflection. We are forced to repair our resolve and lift our spirits. We must rest and dust ourselves off, so to speak. To move along. To build resilience.

However, I must still think of Sham, the horse with heart, that gave it his all and will forever remain #2 — in a year of horse racing that was like none other. I am grateful in some way, that he wasn’t entirely aware of his predicament and what he might have accomplished in another year.

However, no matter the day, he was fierce and true to his own gifts. He came in second to Secretariat with a lasting message about his character. (We should offer that to ourselves.)

In any other given year, he would have been the champion. Yet, he always ran like one — because in his bones he knew, what he had to do.

I love him for that.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

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