My wife is always telling me that I’m smart. It makes me feel kind of, well, weird. I’m not sure why. I’ve accomplished too much academically to dismiss it altogether, but it’s hard to completely accept such praise. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the heck it even means. To be smart, that is. I mean we all say it, referring to those around us as smart or bright. And I know there are tests that are supposed to effectively measure intelligence. But how many of us have actually taken one? And if we have, what exactly has it done to help us? Schools, of course, are notorious for using standardized testing to rank its pupils. But we’ve all heard about the biases inherent in some of these assessments. Furthermore, with more and more ways to prepare and study for these and similar tests, what does a good score on them really mean? That you are able to take a test and do well? That you have the means to afford private classes and tutors? Or that your parents forced you to spend your summer afternoons systematically going through math, grammar, and reading exercises from volumes and volumes of instructional books instead of playing football or riding bikes with your buddies? Whatever it means, I’m not convinced it means you are smart. You may in fact be smart–again, whatever that means–but getting a good score on a test, or getting accepted to an Ivy League School (yeah, I said it) doesn’t mean you are smart. I’d venture to say, even, that the two –being smart and academic achievement— are not nearly as correlated as we’d like to believe, again if we could even define what being smart means.
Well, when she tells me that, my answer to my wife is usually the same. It, of course, has its foundation in sports. And not only does it humbly dispute any inkling that I’m somehow this innately smart person–trust me; I know enough really smart people to think that– but it is also a firm rebuttal to every person (I love ya, but you know who you are) who has referred to my physique— the result of twenty years of hard, dedicated work— as “mostly genetic.” Like my strength and fitness, whatever I have that makes me appear to be smart, is not something with which I was necessarily born.
To me, it’s really pretty simple and comes down to three components. First, I care about my brand. The Bobby Bluford brand, that is. My parents taught me a long, long time ago that anything that I touch, anything that has my name on it, should be the best it can possibly be. And it is my job to make that so. Secondly, the only thing you or I can really control is how hard and diligently we work. We can’t really control how smart or strong we are. Or how good we look or fast we run. But we can control the methods and approaches we take to improve ourselves in those areas. And lastly, as Ronnie Lott affirmed to me in a breakfast meeting we had a few years ago, I try to compete every day. I hate to be outworked, so it is important that I compete against those around me. But equally as essential and something I’ll talk about in a later post, I compete daily against a standard I’ve set for myself. I know when I’m working hard and when I am not. It’s funny how you really can’t fool yourself, isn’t it? And I refuse to allow myself to slack. Sure, I have my off days, but I try to keep them to a minimum, remembering a mantra repeated again and again by one of my college coaches: “Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never, ever, stay the same!”
But all that is good news. The fact that success and achievement are not mystical attributes that people either have or they don’t, should be music to your ears. If it is not, you must be one of those who subscribes to the wrong of two theories. You see, there are two types of people in this world. No, not black and white. Or Democrat and Republic. I’m talking about the divide that exists between those who feel like they control their destiny and those who think they have to accept what life gives them. Between people who tolerantly let life knock them down and those who punch it back in the mouth. People who attend the school of thought that teaches us that we should learn to accept the cards we’re dealt, accepting life as it is, probably stopped reading this post somewhere in the first paragraph. Those with the guts to stand up and be responsible and accountable for their own lives, on the other hand, understand where I’m coming from. And for them, like it is for me, this reality that we can create the paths we take in our lives is really exciting.
I don’t know who originally said it, but it’s been uttered by just about every sports coach at just about every level, at least by most of the ones I’ve had. “It takes no skill to hustle!” Simple message. 100% Accurate. It’s hard work teaching someone technique. Helping someone understand how to think in certain situations is even more difficult. But telling someone to give their best, without exception, is as simple and straightforward as it gets. Unfortunately, as easy and direct as the message might be to deliver, it is equally as difficult for the recipient to accept and admit. It is much easier to accept that any failures we have produced are not our fault. It is easier, believe it or not, to live with lower expectations for ourselves, built upon mostly self-imposed limitations; than it is to dream big, then fervently chase down those dreams. Not as productive obviously, but certainly easier.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: it doesn’t take anything to give your all, to do your best. Working hard doesn’t require one ounce of skill or talent. It works on the field or court. And it’s a metaphor for life’s obstacles to success. Skipping the party so you can spend a few more hours studying or staying after practice to shoot more free throws has nothing to do with genetics. Developing the habit of reading a book each week or going to the gym every morning might be hard, but it’s hardly impossible. These are the bricks on which success is built. Not genetics. Not fate. Not luck. I’d be remiss if I failed to agree that these things do play a part in where we start in the race to success. But since we don’t usually know where that starting point is, either in absolute (How smart or fast or tall am I naturally?) or relative (Am I as creative as others with whom I’ll be competing?) terms, all we really can do is stretch, train, and eat right; put on our best running shoes; then run as fast and as hard as we can! Because anybody can do that!