Safe is Risky

So Wimbledon is upon us once again. One of my favourite times of the year. Also, undoubtedly one of my least productive times! As I look back over the years I have watched this wonderful tournament, it has got me thinking about some of the greatest showmen in this beautiful sport. 

My favourite player ever was the super cool Swede, Bjorn Borg, who won the Men’s Singles title five times in a row in the late seventies. Of all the players of that era, Borg arguably solicited more cries of “Oh I say!” from the equally legendary commentator Dan Maskell than any other. I was almost in tears when he finally lost in the 1981 final to John McEnroe. 

Bjorn-Borg-Trophy

Borg was a completely unique player. I can barely recall ever hearing him speak (he must have done press conferences I guess but perhaps I wasn’t interested in what he had to say as a kid) but the focus was always on his amazing ability to buck the serve and volley trend which was still dominant back then. He had a mystique about him that was almost mythical and his utter brilliance on the court and relative silence under pressure was his show if you like. I remember he had a tradition that from the first day of Wimbledon every year, he stopped shaving and so by the time, he lifted the trophy year in, year out, he would sport a classic blond beard alongside his long, rock star-like hair. It was a long time before anyone captured my heartfelt support again, until finally, the ultimate showman from Las Vegas itself, Andre Agassi blazed his way onto the scene.

Andre Agassi

So what is it about the showman? They say the public loves an underdog and yes, I guess we do. But we also adore a showman who displays scintillating skills – however inconsistently – that mesmerise us. In short, they are the sporting equivalent of our favourite TV and movie heroes who take us away to a world where anything is possible. Most of all, we love a showman who has learnt how to be consistent in the midst of their almost supernatural brilliance, because they provide us with even more occasions to celebrate than we imagined possible. People like Ronnie O’Sullivan in snooker, Andre Agassi, Rafa Nadal. Contrast these guys with others who won even more trophies but who somehow, relatively soon after their initial burst on to the scene, appeared to win repeatedly with almost robotic precision. So much so, that for many of us, there was very little to love. People like Steve Davis and Pete Sampras, or Michael Schumacher from Formula 1 racing.

The best tennis players in the world almost invariably practise what is known as “percentage tennis”. That is, a wide variety of shots that they know will serve them well overall, so long as they play their normal game. The very best players of today’s game like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray aka The Big Four consistently play their percentage tennis but are good enough to take it up a level if they are losing or in a very close struggle against each other, and they can do so with some extraordinary shot-making and still win the crucial points they need to clinch victory.

What is fascinating however, is when a showman (let’s call them a “showplayer”) finds himself playing against one of the The Big Four for example. The only way they can have a chance of winning is if they play to their strengths. That is, non-percentage tennis. Shots that most players wouldn’t dream of attempting, unless forced to do so. This of course, is the complete opposite strategy to the top player. The French currently have these showplayers in spades and have always had one or two around at the same time. Henri Leconte was a fabulous example in the eighties. Yannick Noah was another, and the last Frenchman to win the French Open in 1983. Today they have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gael Monfils. They are like musketeers with a tennis racket and on their day, can beat anyone in the world. But this is where sadly, they fall down. Their brilliance is exquisite to watch but their inconsistency forbids them from achieving what their potential promised when they began their careers.

Jo-Wilfried-Tsonga-007In a match last month at the French Open, Andy Murray found himself up against yet another flamboyant Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy. The commentator, a former champion himself, Jim Courier, began to explain the dynamics of what this is all about, “Murray is the house and Chardy is the gambler. Chardy has to throw the dice because that is the only way he can win. They don’t keep building casinos because they think the gamblers are going to come out on top, but some of them do get the roll of the dice.”

So what of the Samprases and Davises of the sporting world? They knew how to focus on their work and perhaps that was the crucial difference when it came to total achievement by the time they retired from their chosen field. They saw it as their work, not merely a fun way to earn tons of cash and lap up the adulations of endless females. Sure they were not as entertaining as the other guys. But then they were not there to entertain primarily. They were there to win. And win they did. A lot. So much so that you could argue it even became a bit boring. This was one of the reasons why Steve Davis earned the nickname Steve “Interesting” Davis. During the nineties, when Pete Sampras dominated for much of that decade, I actually got bored of watching him win yet another consecutive Wimbledon Men’s Singles title. Three stroke rallies or less with the same guy lifting the trophy was not my idea of good sport, let alone entertainment.

For us mere mortals who have to carve out other, less glamorous, yet equally creative ways of earning a living, being entertained (when we’re not watching our afore-mentioned heroes!) and simply making a life for ourselves, we have to make a decision. Do we choose style or substance? Safe or risky? To win or to simply enjoy? Can we not have both? I think we can, if we choose wisely. As one of my favourite authors Seth Godin says, “Safe is risky.” Just ask or rather, watch the showplayers at Wimbledon.

You’ve Got Talent Part 2

A few years ago, I heard a fantastic speaker at a conference I was attending. The kind of speaker who one minute has you in fits of almost uncontrollable laughter, and the very next minute, pauses the way that a true professional (or total natural) instinctively knows how to. One of the many things he talked about that I have never forgotten is how he had no weaknesses. It sounded outrageously arrogant of course until he broke the pause with “but I have plenty of ‘non-strengths'”.

Subtle but I believe extremely significant shift in emphasis.

We all have talent right? But we can’t all sing. I for one, cannot sing like Susan Boyle, or anyone half decent for that matter. At age eleven or twelve, I was politely asked to leave the after school singing group in front of the entire class. The teacher, a very strict disciplinarian, was moving around the sound-proof music room, hunting down what she clinically described as the “howler in the room”. She inclined her ear down to my shoulder and the game was up. The truth is, I was only really interested in the girls in the group, not the music or singing. My lack of authenticity was bluntly and categorically exposed on the spot.

After the years of counselling following that traumatic expose (I’m joking of course; thankfully, children of the 70s were made of harder stuff!) did I ever sing again? Of course I did. Usually, only in front of an audience of one, and that was not always a human. I don’t consider my singing a weakness. But it is certainly a non-strength.

What is the lesson here then? If you want to unearth your true talent, you simply have to ask yourself one or two questions like, “What do I love doing?” Or “What am I actually really good at?” “What do other people tell me I’m good at?”

If for some reason, even those questions fail to unearth the thing that has thus far eluded you then ask yourself this. “What would I absolutely love to do?”

WhatMakesYouComeAlive

Acknowledge your non-strengths and from now on, call them precisely that. We all have weaknesses of course but for some of us, it helps to address them differently, especially if when you think about it, you could reel off a rather long list of them!

None of this necessarily has to do with your job or business but it could be. Who knows? Focus on your strengths and find a way to fill your life with those things, or that one single thing that makes you come alive. It is incumbent upon all of us to make the effort to find out what it is that we love to do. More often than not, that one thing will be something that after some initial practise and honing (depending on what it is will determine how long it will take to get really good at it) you not only love doing but you do it with the sort of consummate ease that almost makes you feel guilty. Some people call this operating in the ‘Grace Zone” – that place where you know that you know, this is part of your core being and that is why it comes so easily.

You’ve Got Talent Part 1

Okay, I admit it, I am a massive Britain’s Got Talent fan. And the reason is very simple. Despite all the dross, the time-wasters, unattractive strippers and a whole variety of other acts that I could happily live without ever seeing; I absolutely adore those moments – and there are usually at least one or two in every series – where a somewhat nervous, even trembling figure takes to the stage in the midst of uncertainty, sometimes even downright cynical, premature disapproval from the audience and then… whoa!

What a moment of utter surprise and joy when that person opens up their lungs and bellows out an incredibly divine singing voice, or a dance that leaves you completely mesmerised, or the magician who leaves you gasping for any clue as to how he or she did what they just did.

Arguably, the most famous example of this came in 2009, when a rather eccentric, middle-aged lady from somewhere in Scotland walked on to the stage and announced her name. Susan Boyle defied the vast majority of the total venue and TV audience (including yes, that poor, somewhat foolish, young woman who appeared to visibly sneer before a single note had been sung) and delivered the finest and undoubtedly most surprising audition ever heard, anywhere. I don’t need an excuse to remember that magical moment but in case you do, here’s the link. And look out for Ant’s wonderful remark to the camera after those glorious first few notes.

I believe we all have talent. You have talent. I have talent. The problem is often how to unearth it and then an even bigger problem is how to nurture and develop it. In Part 2, I will elaborate on why it is crucial to focus on your strengths but for now, here are some questions for you to consider:

What makes you come alive?
If you didn’t need to get paid, what would you absolutely love to do for a job or have as a business?
Who do you respect and admire in the marketplace the most and why?
What would you most like to achieve as a result of your ideal work?
What is stopping you from pursuing the thing you’d most like to do?

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.
Erica Jong

Change is Here to Stay

Change

I recently coached a group of corporate executives on the subject of developing resilience when going through change. During my preparation, I was reminded of just how much choice we have when it comes to the nature of change. We can choose to embrace it. Or we can choose to fight it. The problem with the latter approach is it achieves nothing more than the illusion of defiance. Change happens whether we embrace it or not. And if we don’t, we simply get left behind, wondering where on earth our long lost “Land of Nostalgia” has been transported to.

That is not to say that all change is good. In recent years, I have had to deal with and adjust to massive change that many would argue has not been a good thing at all. But therein lies the secret of change…

…Change is a constant, both positive and negative. Like the sun rising and setting, it waits for no one. Our circumstances may not change the way we want them to and almost invariably, not as fast as we would like either but I’m not really thinking about that kind of change right now. I’m thinking about the kind of change that we didn’t choose. The kind of change that is going to massively affect our work place, or our personal space, the place where you are most comfortable and are very or at least pretty happy with thank you very much. The place where you have hung that oft-quoted adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The trouble with that thought however, is that no one said it was broke in the first place. It was simply time to change, even if no one in particular planned that change.

Speaking of which or rather, whom. Who decides this stuff anyway? Some may point to the Creator of the Universe, or some great architect of constant change; others may claim it is all in the karma that surrounds us; still others, it’s all random acts of kindness as well as plenty of not-so-kind stuff going on. Either way, assuming by now, that you don’t really want to be one of those people who are stubbornly digging in their heels, desperately seeking solace away from the change that is relentlessly looming over you, here are some ideas that might help you in your transition – however unattractive the prospect of change may currently feel.

  1. Don’t let what you do know stop you from discovering what you don’t yet know. Even if you do really know that the status quo in any part of your life is actually really, really good; never, ever take it for granted. From there, never stop building, investing, exploring and discovering stuff you didn’t know before.

  2. Visualise what you want rather than worrying about what you fear. This is huge. I heard someone say recently that he could never be a hipster, so instead, he had decided to become a hopester. I think that is genius. Choose to be a person who is always hopeful. Obviously, we can all hope for whatever we want but if we don’t actually do anything about it, the hope will eventually expire and we will simply end up hopeless. Which is why the act of visualising is so important too. However you choose to process your dreams, without goals, they will always be just that – dreams.

  3. Be confident in your ability to ride out the change; especially if no one expects it to be a pleasant journey. Think bereavement, separation, divorce, bankruptcy. It is difficult indeed, to even consider embracing stuff like that but this is where the power of change can be demonstrated most powerfully. Think about it. Your life, however insignificant it may feel to you, is still a part of history. That is, the story of time and space and all that has ever taken place. So make it your goal, your driving ambition with every last ounce of all that you have within you to finish your story well. I don’t have space here to elaborate but in today’s world it takes a couple of clicks and you can spend hours being inspired by endless stories of the good and the great, as well as the lesser known and almost anonymous heroes who have all somehow, against seemingly overwhelming odds made it through in the end.

  4. Let go of the stuff you can no longer control and focus on the stuff you can, namely your attitude and determination to overcome. There is an ancient phrase “more than a conqueror” which rendered in the original Greek, reads hupernikao. I used to tell all three of my kids when they were very young, “You can make it! You are hupernikao!” until one day they said it was simply too embarrassing hearing that in front of all the other kids at the school gates or the sports field! overcoming-obstacles-quotes-1

  5. Don’t shut down your emotional response to change but don’t be controlled by your emotions either. Depending on the level of trauma involved in your change, if you don’t let your emotions out on a regular basis, they are going to come out anyway, invariably when you least expect or want them to. In other words, if you need to do some serious crying, and in you’re in a safe place to do so, don’t let the curse of the stiff upper lip win the day or else you will find the tsunami of tears will  break out one way or the other, on a day of their choosing and you won’t be prepared.

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