Winning Changes Everything: A Q&A with Scott Hamilton

Olympic figure skating champion Scott Hamilton shares his keys to winning: Find your purpose and embrace failure.

By Novid Parsi Jan 25, 2018
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Scott Hamilton​

​Scott Hamilton is famous for winning. He brought home the Olympic gold medal from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in men’s figure skating in 1984. He also came out on top at both the U.S. and world championships—four years in a row. In the decades since his Olympic victory, Hamilton, 59, got married, had four kids, became a TV commentator, survived cancer and brain tumors, founded a skating academy in Nashville, Tenn., and started the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation to fund cancer research.

But his professional and personal triumphs followed years of struggles. He was sickly as a child with an illness that stunted his growth. His mother died when he was a teenager. At his first U.S. National Figure Skating Championship, Hamilton fell five times and finished dead last. In his new book, Finish First: Winning Changes Everything (Thomas Nelson, 2018), he counsels that the way to become a winner is by living with purpose and getting back up when you’re down.

You write that finishing first isn’t necessarily about beating other people. So, what does winning mean for you?

It’s about finding your purpose and then doing everything you can to get the greatest impact from that. That means leveraging your abilities to give yourself the best life possible. Of course, you will encounter barriers and unpleasant experiences in your pursuit of excellence—whether it’s failures, criticism or living in fear of those things—but you’ll get through them.

You have been critical of the modern parenting notion that all kids are medal-worthy. Why?

We’re seeing a whole generation of young people who see the mountain peak and desperately want to be there, but they don’t want to climb to reach it. We’re not preparing them for life, which will be filled with failures. Trying to be excellent at something comes with a mountain of disappointments. But it is not this debilitating, horrible thing. It’s part of the process; it makes you more resilient. Once we embrace failure and stop fearing it, we can joyfully live our lives.

How can coaches—and HR professionals—help people find their competitive fire?

As the manager of my skating academy tells me every day, “There are only solutions.” Of course, people have challenges, but let’s not be completely oppressed by them. Let’s look at how to solve problems instead of dwelling on what’s wrong.

What lessons can today’s workers learn from competitors in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea?

Get up every time you fail. Watching Olympic athletes pull off seemingly impossible feats demonstrates the commitment it takes to go from point A to B. It can help people to summon their own will to lose 15 pounds, eat better, take that class, read those books, volunteer. The Olympics is a celebration of youth and excellence where the world comes together in peace and focuses on what unites us instead of what divides us.

You’re a cancer survivor, and you’ve had three brain tumors. What does winning mean in that context?

Cancer won’t defeat me. I control the experience. I approach every new piece of information with confidence and courage, not weakness. I say this every time I go in for my scans: “Whatever it is, I’ll face it joyfully.” And my faith really allows me to do that, too. I just feel there’s more to this life than the years I occupy this physical body.

Does your book’s focus on individual choices downplay the role of a supportive network?

A lot depends on chance, but we’re not alone in any of this. My coach would always tell me humans are social animals; they can’t survive without other people. So much seems random and accidental. But you make the most of what you’ve got and do everything you can to eliminate the things that hold you back. 

Interview by Novid Parsi

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