The past couple of weeks has been a veritable cornucopia of world class sport. England beat Sweden in the quarter finals of the World Cup, Formula One visited Silverstone in Northamptonshire, we’re in the throes of my beloved Wimbledon and, most importantly of all, my children are preparing for their respective sports days at school. This got me thinking about the common thread running through them all, and then about the inspiring Horseshoe Bend in Arizona (pictured).
With the obvious exception of my children’s sports days, the three other examples were conducted on the world stage in front of millions of people, but what we were allowed to see was merely the tip of a gigantic iceberg. We were watching the cumulative effect of focused and sustained effort, performed with unwavering diligence over a long period of time, whichever sport you were following. As the England football team is newly formed under Gareth Southgate, and comparatively young and inexperienced (but otherwise bloody awesome to have done so well), let’s take a deeper dive into Formula One (because I’m something of a petrol-head) and tennis.
Both are team sports, even though the likes of Serena Williams and Roger Federer are out on court by themselves. The same can be said for Lewis Hamilton driving around in a single-seater for two hours. Not a single one of them would be there without the legion of team mates, supporting and optimising every leverage point with them. This is only successful however when combined with the dedicated discipline of the athletes themselves, who must create their strongest and fittest selves, relentlessly. It’s finely honed excellence on every level, towards a shared goal to win. Think about the delicate balance of ingredients in this recipe for success.
“You have to do what others won’t, to achieve what others don’t”
If the Works Manager at Mercedes didn’t keep the workshop spotless and fully operational, the mechanics couldn’t put the car together well. If the Aerodynamicists were not at the top of their game, inviting innovation and creativity into their processes, technical advancements could not be made. If the Commercial Department didn’t attract lucrative sponsorship deals, the very best of everything could not be afforded. If the catering staff didn’t provide optimal nutrition in hygienic conditions, the team and drivers could fall ill and not race. These principles are of course transferable to any team; everyone has their valuable contribution to make.
One of the single biggest pushes I give to my mentoring and life coaching clients is this: think big, but act small. Now you’re wondering how that makes any sense, but let me explain. The team – be it the England football squad, Mercedes and Hamilton, Team Serena Williams, or the entrepreneurial team building your dream – all have a big goal of some kind; winning essentially. Excellent. But to achieve those big goals, you have to focus and act on the small component parts; the marginal gains; you have to embrace the grind. But the grind is slow, laborious and distinctly unsexy work, which is why so few people are willing to do it. Not everyone is prepared to train in all weathers and climates, to forgo the broader temptations in life (alcohol, empty calories and late nights), or to push themselves to the limits of their endurance. To many this all sounds like too much hard work, they’d rather i.e.: watch TV in their spare time, which of course is their free will choice to make.
My advice however has always been: “You have to do what others won’t, to achieve what others don’t”, because true greatness is sifted through the grind, and the grind alone. If you want to live on Easy Street all your life, well that’s your right, but don’t then wonder why the fortunes of greatness are not dropping into your lap. Life can be easy, or life can be great, but you can’t have both. You do however get to choose.
Now let me draw your attention to Horseshoe Bend in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. It’s basically a huge horseshoe shaped chunk of rock, which has been formed over millions of years by nothing more than gentle and relentless water erosion. Horseshoe Bend has not been carved by force, it’s been eroded a little at a time by persistence, and this is where our lesson comes in, we must do the same. We must whittle away for as long as it takes, making the tiniest of marginal gain improvements persistently to inch forever forwards. When exasperated and frustrated, please remember that progress may be slow, but quitting won’t speed it up.
Just think about the millions of pounds and dollars spent to be only one thousandth of second faster than other competitors during a Formula One qualifying session. The fact Hamilton may only be one thousandth of a second quicker matters not, what matters is he wins pole position. From pole position he has the best possible chance of making a good start and winning the race. Should he accumulate enough race wins over the year-long season, he and the team win the championships. If he and the team win the championships, they earn more money. More money equals the best of everything; people, technology, tools, workshops, sponsors – and so the spiral reaches forever onwards and upwards. Success brings more rewards, but to achieve the success you must be prepared to endure the grind of making it happen, because it’s a process not an event.
Why must you be prepared to endure the grind? Why can’t greatness and fortune be thrust upon you, without you even trying? Because by enduring the grind, you grow into the person who can handle the pressures and responsibilities of success. By facing and vanquishing adversity, by making the hard choices in life and accepting the road less travelled, you will grow into who you eventually need to be. Let’s think this through some more. If you don’t develop the strength of character, or acquire the wisdom wrung out from years of hardship and perseverance, what kind of person/team/employer would you be? If your life has been one long easy streak, where were your opportunities to grow? There is no growth without challenge, so if life hasn’t hammered chips off to smooth your rough edges, how have you been refined and improved upon from your days of immaturity at school? When will you have learnt how to make tough decisions under immense pressure? When will you have learnt who you truly are, and what you’re truly capable of? Where will you have learnt humility, if life hasn’t first broken down your ego a little?
Many of us burst out of school accompanied by the natural exuberance and arrogance of youth. We think we’re immortal, unstoppable and we’re going to change the world. Excellent, but we’re likely to be clumsy and haphazard in our approach at first. Think about how wobbly baby giraffes are when first born, until they find their feet. This is how young people approach the adult world to begin with; the potential is there for sure, but they need time to strengthen, learn and acclimatise to their new reality. And how do they do that? Experience. By learning (the hard way) that you can’t talk to people like shit and expect their enthusiastic cooperation. By learning the laws of cause and effect, that our choices and actions have consequences. By learning we’re not invincible or immortal, and that life isn’t always fair – but it’s how you respond that matters most. All of these lessons (and countless others) must be endured for us to evolve into our best selves.
We can help our evolution along by acknowledging the lessons the England football team, Mercedes and Hamilton and Team Serena have to teach us; to always be pushing for the tiniest increments of improvements in ourselves, and in what we do – even if it is for as little as one thousandth of a second advantage. An advantage is an advantage. So in real life how can we manifest this theory? Simple; read more and expand your mind. Exercise more and become stronger, fitter and healthier. Laugh more and stress less. Work smarter and create a sustainable work-life balance. Be more compassionate and promote peace. Just do something every day that improves upon your best from yesterday, then rinse and repeat tomorrow, because your results will accumulate.
You don’t have to take extreme measures, like training for a marathon, or immersing yourself in a five year law degree, just focus on the incremental marginal gains you can achieve easily every day. Improve yourself just a little every day. Think about the water eroding Horseshoe Bend… it got there in the end. Think about the time and money invested in achieving just one thousandth of a second speed advantage, because no advantage is too small. Your tiny marginal gains, compounded over time, will eventually be visible for the world to see, just as we’re seeing with England, Hamilton and Team Serena now, and your growth will have been achieved because of your challenges, not in spite of them.
Whatever you want to achieve or change remember that true greatness is sifted through the grind. Not everyone has what it takes to accept this challenge; do you?