[November 17, 2020] In 2003, after the start of the Iraq War, several of my friends attending the U.S. Army War College (AWC) dropped out of the school to go with their unit to Iraq and fight. It was noble of them to do so, but there was a problem; none were allowed back into the AWC. As one of them said, close only counts in horseshoes.
He was referring to the fact that he and his friends would never be graduates of the AWC, despite completing about 90 percent of the course. In the Army, and elsewhere in the U.S. military, almost doesn’t count. You have to complete a task before you are given any credit. Like another college friend who completed his entire Doctorate work in Physics but didn’t graduate, he will not be called a doctor or get a job requiring the Ph.D.
“Close doesn’t count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.” – Frank Robinson, American baseball player, and manager
I like the Frank Robinson quote, but he is not the first to say it. With my friends, we used to say close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear bombs. We were not original but adding the “atomic bombs” piece was entertaining. From what I can tell, this idiom (minus the atomic bomb reference) originated sometime in the early 1900s.1
Politicians are sensitive to this issue. A close vote tally makes for some great suspense, yet there is no runner-up prize. Either the politician is elected or not. In business, almost landing an account doesn’t mean anything for the company because there is no money involved. Some informal credit is a learning experience, but there is no win if you are only close.
I’m reminded of many young people I’ve met over the past several decades who believe that their “intent” to do good or they almost graduating somehow gives them something over others. I don’t think so. This is no trivial point. Many young people have not been educated in how the world works and, counter-productively, have been given rewards for not completing a task or winning a game. “Participation trophies” comes to mind.
What this does, in my opinion, is to dull the motivation to excel. Motivation to a leader is their bread and butter, it is how they operate, and without it, nothing would get accomplished.