Greatness Is A Behavior Not A Finish Line
It was my first serious tournament. I was about to face the best tennis players in my region. I hadn’t played a match yet, but I had visions of stardom, television interviews and overflowing trophy rooms.
I was an avid tennis player in my youth. I started playing as soon as I could pick up a racket. By the time I was fourteen years old, I had beaten everyone in the surrounding area. Nobody could touch me.
Eager to support my passion, my parents signed me up to compete in regional tournaments. I don’t recall the score of my first match, and perhaps that’s a good thing because my opponent trounced me. It was a humbling experience.
I overestimated my skills. It wasn’t arrogance or parental deception. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. I lacked a meaningful comparison to make a realistic assessment of my skills.
I had that epiphany you experience when you step out into the arena or compete against stiff competition for the first time.
I’m not as good as I thought I was
You know the feeling. It’s a universal experience; fiction writers use it as a common trope.
Girl is the best[fill in the blank] in her neighborhood.
Girl wants to compete on the big stage.
Girl flops in her first competition.
Girl realizes she’s not as amazing as she thought.
Girl faces a choice. Commit or quit.
We need obstacles and competition
There’s an arc to developing any skill or talent. Some folks may have natural ability, but excellence requires practice, patience, competition, and obstacles to overcome.
In the early stages of skill development, we often work in solitude or in a carefully controlled environment. We never face those tough obstacles or humbling competition. We thrive, but in a bubble, and we develop an inflated view of our excellence.
When we finally step into the ring, reality hits and we realize we’re not as good as we thought we were.
What happens next?
At first, we blame everyone but ourselves. If you’re a writer, you might recognize some of this self-talk.
“I’m ahead of my time. They don’t get me.”
“The Illuminati blacklisted me out of jealousy.”
“The ones getting better results are cheating.”
An athlete will blame their coaches, referees and teammates. The excuses mount as the evidence stacks against your favor. At some point, you can no longer fool yourself. You accept that you’re not what you thought you were — at least to yourself.
You’re at a crossroads. You can take one of two paths.
Quitting takes many forms. There’s no shame in quitting if you lack the passion for your chosen path. If that’s your choice, do it and don’t look back.
Don’t quit because of discouragement. You’ll always wonder what could have been. I quit tennis when I turned sixteen. I was discouraged over my lack of success in tournaments. I had closed the gap in my two years of serious competition.
That’s what competition does; it makes you better. But that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to win tournaments to feel successful. Could I have earned a college scholarship had I stuck with it? I’ll never know.
Sometimes we quit slowly. We decrease the time we put into our craft and eventually fade away. Other times, we go out in a blaze of glory, cursing out all the people who supported us and helped us. I’ve never done that, but I’ve seen plenty of examples. It’s a shameful way to quit.
It may sound like a punchline to a ’90s late-night infomercial, but commitment is the cornerstone to achieving greatness in any endeavor.
Commit to yourself
I’m grateful for my experience in tennis. I’ve never forgotten the way I left the sport. When I started writing again almost four years ago, I had my moment of reckoning. I worked hard to perfect my craft. I thought I was amazing. The world disagreed. Nobody complained about my work. They just ignored it.
“What is wrong with people these days,” I thought.
I made a commitment to myself.
No matter what, I’m not going to quit. I’m going to write every day.
Commitment to yourself is critical, but it’s not enough.
Commit to never-ending improvement
You will never reach the point of perfection. You will never reach the point of good enough. You see examples of great artists and thinkers who reach a certain point and stop growing. They stop learning and improving. Don’t be that person.
Don’t think of greatness as a finish line. Think of it as a behavior — the act of continuous devotion to improvement.
Always aim to be a tiny bit better each day, no matter where your skills lie on the continuum.
Study the best performers in your chosen field. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover how significant the gap is between you and those at the top of their game.
There is only one sure way to know if you’re improving. Test yourself.
Commit to entering the ring
Are you discouraged over your poor performance the last time you competed or tested your work? Competing — whatever form it takes in your chosen field — provides you feedback. It tells you what’s working and what’s not.
When you compete, you put yourself in a position to win or succeed. Stay at it long enough, and you will eke out a small victory. Other victories will follow. More importantly, the feedback contributes to your commitment to never-ending improvement. It builds your confidence and hardens you against criticism.
And hey, remember when you thought they underappreciated your work? Get ready for some major embarrassment.
Go back and look at earlier examples of your work. No doubt, you’ll experience what I did when I recently read my first piece.
How the hell did I ever think this was quality work? What was I thinking?