Second Acts in Public Life

August 3, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”

Of course, he’s been proven wrong many times, and the arc of Fitzgerald’s own literary career belies his statement.

A lot of people will be watching American Olympian Michael Phelps in the days ahead. Phelps experienced tremendous success, earning 22 medals during three Olympiads. He has also had his share of controversy.

While the public applauds athletic success, it is also morbidly fascinated by superstars who lose their luster. Consider the reversals of Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Johnnie Manziel. 

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The best antidote to tabloid headlines is a private life with a purpose—and a renewed focus. Michael Phelps can make his strongest statements in the pool. But as I’ve often told many of the athletes with whom I’ve worked, more than 50 percent of public perception is formed by an athlete’s life away from competition. Even with an outstanding performance at the Olympics, Michael Phelps’s reputation will largely depend on how he carries himself in the world at large. 

Americans are very forgiving, allowing many second acts in public life. For example, look no further than Muhammad Ali, Congressman Mark Sanford, actor Robert Downey, Jr., and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Think about how far these individuals have come from their nadir in public life. People love a comeback story. 

I hope Michael Phelps meets with success in Rio—in the pool and beyond.

More evidence of the Michael Phelps resurgence: He was voted flag bearer for the United States Olympic team today by his fellow athletes. This is only the second time a swimmer has served as the flag bearer for Team USA in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  

While the public applauds athletic success, it is also morbidly fascinated by athletes who lose their luster.

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More than 50% of public perception is formed by an athlete's life away from the competition.

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