If you watch sports often and long enough, you are almost certain to see a performance that, prior to its occurrence, seemed beyond the realm of human possibility. Roger Bannister’s first sub-4 minute mile (3 minutes 59.4 seconds) run at the Iffley Road Track Club, in Oxford, England on May 6, 1954 would certainly fall into that category, as would Bob Beamon’s world record long jump of 29′, 2 1/2″ at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City; Mark Spitz’ 7 gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics; Jason Lezak’s 46.06 split in the anchor leg of the Men’s 4 x 100 Freestyle Relay at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics; a badly dehydrated, flu-ridden Michael Jordan’s epic 38 point, 7 rebound, 5 assist, 3 steal and 1 blocked shot performance in the Chicago Bulls’ must-win Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals; Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point single game performance in the Philadelphia Warriors’ 169–147 win over the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962; Bob Feller’s 18 strike-out gem in an October 2, 1938 game between his Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers; Tiger Woods’ 12 shot margin of victory at the 1997 Masters; and David Duval’s final round 59 at the 1999 Bob Hope Desert Classic; to name just a few.
These historic sports performances (and countless others) have at least two critical ingredients in common. The first, of course, is that the athletes at the center of them plainly had the talent required to accomplish what they did. However, that talent didn’t magically appear overnight. To the contrary, none of these record-breaking achievements would have been possible had the athletes involved not dedicated their lives and invested countless hours to tirelessly, patiently and passionately developing and honing their considerable skills – not to mention overcoming the adversity that inevitably is part of that level of success. The second ingredient is considerably less obvious, but no less critical: precisely because what they were about to accomplish had never been done before not one of the athletes began the events described above with a realistic expectation of the greatness they were about to achieve (e.g., Bob Beamon could not have known that he was about to jump nearly 2 feet farther than any human being had ever jumped, nor could Jason Lezak have stepped to the starting block believing that, at age 33, a veritable relic by competitive swimming standards, he was about to obliterate the record for fastest 100 meter split in history).
Stated otherwise, the seeming impossibility of achieving the result they ultimately did is what enabled each athlete to put the prospect of achieving it out of their mind, which, in turn, allowed them to “stay in the moment” (i.e., to take it one shot, one stroke, one pitch, etc. at a time). Simply put, they focused on the process and let the result take care of itself. Perhaps U.S. Olympian Jason Lezak best captured the criticality of this ingredient. When asked, during a post-race interview, what was going through his mind when he reached the halfway mark of his historic anchor leg and he found himself nearly a full body length (i.e., the sprint swimming equivalent of a small country mile!) behind then 100-meter freestyle world record holder Frenchman Alain Bernard, a swimmer almost 10 years his junior, Lezak replied: “I remember thinking, there’s no way I can catch this guy. I just have to finish this race as fast as I can.” And finish it he did. In fact, he finished it 1.2 seconds faster than he had ever swum a 100 meter anchor leg in his highly-decorated swimming career!
I believe the foregoing principles offer a similar recipe for greatness in our everyday lives and are readily transferable to them. Regrettably, however, our natural human tendency is to do just the opposite. We focus on the result and lose sight of the vital, indeed indispensable role that the process plays in making the result possible. We fail to recognize that, as supremely talented as those athletes were, none harbored any allusions about being able to accomplish what they ultimately did the first or even the 100th time out of the starting blocks. Rather, they understood that those kinds of achievements would one day be possible only if they were willing to invest the time, energy and single-minded commitment required to lay the foundation for greatness. We don’t always do that. We are a mostly impatient lot. We think we have a clear idea of what we want, but we also have a fairly well-defined, albeit distorted sense of when we want it – now (please) and, preferably, with as little effort and hassle as possible! Tomorrow will suffice, I suppose, but only if we absolutely have to wait! That, of course, is not the path to greatness. That is a path littered with frustration, discouragement, disappointment and, ultimately, a sense of failure.
A few days ago, my friend and fellow blogger, Alison Smela (http://alisonsmela.wordpress.com), summed all this up in 4 simple, but profoundly important and powerful words. I had written to inquire about how her husband, who recently underwent major shoulder surgery, was progressing with his recovery. She responded: “It’s SLOW, but FOUNDATIONAL.” Alison knows of where she speaks, having spent a significant portion of her life fighting to recover from not one, but two life-threatening illnesses. She understands that, when it comes to building a structure of self that will withstand everything in the metaphorical “Big Bad Wolf’s” arsenal, there is only one brick more important than the first one laid and that’s the second . . . and then the third . . . and the fourth. There’s no “rushing” the process, but much to be gained from it – “historic” results of a much more human kind. Thank you, Alison, for so eloquently reminding me of that!