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 earn their success based on their merits; they weren’t given anything.
Serena Williams is No. 1 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 almost 15 years later, she still has the motivation to dominate the sport. Women’s tennis is famous for stars retiring early like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters 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 and 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 cancer, to have the belief and desire to think he could win a Tour de France, then to go out and train 15 hours a day in the Texas heat is pretty inhuman. Tiger Woods said he practices for 14 hours a day, hitting balls, chipping and putting again and again and again. A few years ago in a piece for “60 Minutes,” Ed Bradley described it as “a never ending quest for perfection.”
Jerry Rice was unheard of out of high school and went to a Division 1-AA school Mississippi Valley State. Obsessed 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 two and a half mile hill in San Carlos, Calif., 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 was deducted 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 Williams grew up in Compton, Calif., learning the game from their driven father on a broken tennis court. They fought all challenges of poverty, their neighborhood and race within the sport to reach the highest peak.
A society where people are judged upon their merits is better than an entitlement society. A merit-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 your success.
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