Most people always envy athletes for their fame and money, but really they should envy their work ethic. Now I know they have it great, they play a game for a living and make millions of dollars, but it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get there. Unlike many in society, they have to to earn their success based on their merits, they weren’t given anything.
Serena Williams is number one in the world again, becoming the oldest woman in the history of tennis to do so. She won her first U.S. Open title in 1999 as a teenager, and to think that almost fifteen years later, she still has the motivation to dominate the sport, is quite unique to the sport. Women’s tennis is famous for stars retiring early like Justine Henin and Kim Clisters, or plummeting from the top of the world ranks because they got comfortable. To stay on top for years in any sport is counterintuitive to human nature, and that is why it’s so impressive. In life we get comfortable, cozy, satisfied, we retire, we relax, we lounge. Once a goal is achieved the attitude is generally “Now that’s over” never “What’s next.”
That drive is why I still to some degree admire Lance Armstrong. Yes he did steroids and was a cheater, and even worse he sued people who he knew were telling the truth. But to recover from near death cancer, to have the belief and desire to think he could win a Tour de France, then to go out and train 15hours a day in the Texas heat, is pretty inhuman. Tiger Woods has said he practices for 14 hours a day, hitting balls, chipping, and putting again and again and again. Ed Bradley in a sixty minutes piece a few years ago described it as “A never ending quest for perfection.”
Jerry Rice was unheard of out of high school and went to a Division I-AA school Mississippi Valley State. Through an obsession with being the best, at whatever the cost, he ended up becoming the NFL’s all time leading receiver, and a three time Super Bowl champ. During his rookie year he started running up a 2 and a half mile hill in San Carlos, California to stay in shape. He regularly did it in 15 minutes, and many of his teammates who tried couldn’t even finish. As a child in the sweltering heat of Mississippi summers he used to catch bricks thrown by his father who constructed houses, and any brick dropped wasdeducted from his paycheck. Steve Young said he had no “off” switch unlike everyone else.
We need to think more like athletes in our culture. We need to understand we should be judged upon our merits, and that bad breaks are a part of the equation. Hard work doesn’t always mean success financially, but it gives one the attitude needed to be successful in other walks of life. Serena and Venus grew up in Compton, California learning the game from their drivenfather on a broken tennis court. They fought all challenges of their neighborhood, race within the sport, and poverty to the highest peak.
A society where people are judged upon their merits is better for everyone, not an entitlement society. A merits based society naturally creates an atmosphere of competition and work that makes everyone better in return. Never being satisfied (with the right perspective of course) in any aspect of life gives us the edge to look back at the end of our days and say “I think I did pretty much all that I wanted to do.” It would be a lot harder to look in the mirror and say “Maybe I didn’t work that hard, or try that hard or could have done better.” To look and say I tried to do everything in life I wanted to do, well that would be satisfying regardless of success.