Wouldn’t it be something if we truly understood what causes some to succeed beyond all expectations, while others fall short of their dreams and aspirations? Talk about a sure-fire best seller—the book that spelled out that answer! Just trying to define one’s own “success” is perplexing enough, a complex affair because people are complex. Our ability to succeed derives not only from our individual gene pool, that is, how our emotional and rational wiring is routed, but also through the takeaways derived from our life experiences, the lessons stored in our cerebral circuitry.
Yet even after considerable pondering on how we’re doing, sometimes what we come upon is no more than a hint of what it takes to prosper. Other times the tutorials of events we live through or observe shout out clear advice. The recently completed U.S. Open Tennis Championship offered several fascinating instructions on how to achieve and sustain success. Serena Williams and Andy Murray, for example, climbed to the pinnacle of the tennis world, each getting there in quite different ways–both available to us in our own fields.
Serena Williams has been a tennis star from the beginning of her career. She is an immense talent and a long-standing superstar. Isn’t it interesting that there are athletes like Mickey Mantle, Tiger Woods, or Serena Williams who can harness their natural gifts at a relatively young age and have long, successful careers? For others their careers appear to have the trajectory of a ballistic missile that roars towards the heavens only to malfunction and crash to earth. Why is that? Perhaps Serena’s comments after her Open win provide a clue.
As you may know, Serena needs three more Grand Slam titles to tie the all-time record of eighteen, jointly held by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, in reflecting on that goal, she said, “I kind of started playing for history.” Her goal is clear to her, thus easy to express. More important she knows that success is not a self-perpetuating process, like an electric clock you set once, plug into the socket, and forget about it. Serena understands that success requires a constant focus on excellence to continue to win at the lofty levels at which she competes. Many companies and other organizations forget that you must “keep up” a high degree of focused energy and practice, and with that forgetful complacency, their fates are sealed.
I am reminded of a story I read about the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio. As DiMaggio entered the twilight of his career, he was having serious problems with his feet, yet he played daily with unwavering effort while in almost relentless pain. One day a rookie on the team asked Joe why he competed with such intensity when he was a presumptive lock to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame. DiMaggio smiled and said, “Because there might be someone in the stands that has never seen me play.” Wow, that is one of my favorite comments ever–Joe D playing for history, but also playing to instill in all who witness his feats inspiring, self-motivating memories of the great man at peak performance. Shouldn’t we do that as well? Who wants to be remembered as simply adequate–one average Joe among the masses? No one, so we must act, work, contribute, behave, and create with the mantle of history on our shoulders every day.
Andy Murray won his first major event last week. It was an historic feat as he became the first British subject to win a Grand Slam event in 76 years. Murray battled Novak Djokovic for nearly five hours, tying the longest match in U.S. Open history. Having never before beaten the Serbian superstar, Murray withstood a furious comeback to ultimately prevail. Unlike Serena Williams, Murray traveled the path to his success in fits and starts. As you may recall, earlier this year Murray lost to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon finals but then beat him in the Olympic final on the same court. Do you see a pattern? I think Murray did.
But perhaps the most telling comment was what he said after losing at Wimbledon, “I am getting closer.” There are those who would have said to the press at such a moment, “I don’t think I will ever win a major tournament. A little gray cloud follows me about.” Not surprisingly, those folks are amazingly prophetic! So here is my contribution on success strategies to file away and/or use right now.
Chip and Dan Heath in their terrific book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard (Broadway Books 2010) teach that bringing about change–including positive changes in your own life, requires a strong sense of progress, much like Murray’s “ I am getting closer.” The problem comes, however, when you set goals that are too far down the road or too high. While Murray was pleased to be getting closer to a high goal but one that suited him, some folks misconstrue their real though incremental progress because it doesn’t measure up against some over-the-top objective. Yes, you can dream too well, thus making any real accomplishment seem meager and unworthy.
The Heath brothers’ additional advice, while simple, is remarkably helpful. First, remind people “what’s already been conquered.” But most important, “shrink the change” by taking on measures of improvement in manageable increments–think “small wins,” one after another. Even in his loss at Wimbledon, Murray saw and understood that he was getting closer to his goal. But Murray did a second thing to strengthen his chances: he brought on a new coach, Ivan Lendl, who has taught him to be more assertive on the court. Thus, Murray aided and abetted his chances of success by having faith in incremental improvement and by recognizing that he needed to take responsibility for putting in place whatever assistance was essential for success. Hope of accomplishments alone won’t do, just like hopes that are too high, even delusional. Nope, hope is fueled by having the will and the way to see our dreams materialize.
In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press, 2008; 2011), I relate one of the great chance encounters in my life. On a flight to Salt Lake City I was seated next to Dick Bass, who at that time was the oldest person ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Dick was also the first person to scale the highest peak on each of the seven continents, a feat known as the Seven Summits. In addition, he is also a very successful businessman, author, and speaker.
So during our flight, I asked Dick what it took to be successful as a climber but also in life. Dick looked at me and said, “Sandy, it is really quite simple, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you just keep moving forward!” While Dick’s advice doesn’t display any flair for the dramatic, is it not the perfect descriptor of how to achieve any quest for greatness? In their two separate ways, that’s what both Serena Williams and Andy Murray are doing–absent complacency or being stalked by little gray clouds of doubt–in their own fields.