When I was in high school, I read everything I could about football training. How to get faster. How to get stronger. I bought (or copied) VHS (yes, I said VHS) tapes of drills and football clinics. And I recorded every show or segment on television that highlighted successful athletes, football or otherwise. By the time I was ready for college, I thought I’d pretty much figured it out. I set some goals for myself and knew just what it took to bench press more than 300 pounds and run a 4.5 second forty yard dash. I knew what and when to eat in order to gain muscle mass. And I knew what kind of drills to do to improve my quickness and jumping ability. I was sure I’d gathered all the tools I needed to get bigger, faster, and stronger. So the summer before heading off for my first season in college, I embarked upon an intense training program, putting all of that knowledge to good use. In the morning I’d run for distance (a few miles usually) to increase my cardiovascular capacity. Endurance training, of course, is not extremely important for football playing. After all, you seldom run for more than ten or twenty yards and usually have ample time to recover. It is, however, important for football training. The better conditioned I was, I learned, the longer and more intense my workouts could be. That would translate into more power and explosiveness. Building this solid foundation of cardiovascular capacity (I later learned this is what scientists call VO2 max) would be critical to my development in almost every physical area. So, even though I hated running distance–I’d much rather do sprints with short rest breaks than run continuously– I knew I had to do it. And I spent most mornings hitting the pavement like a boxer getting ready for a big fight. Following my run and after a break that often included a nap– I’d learned rest was as important as training in growing muscle– I lifted weights, focusing primarily on bench press, squats, and other core football lifts; but being sure to throw in what I call cosmetic lifts that included bicep curls and calf raises. These provided confidence and an edge, also very important. In most evenings, as a wrap up, I used the increased endurance gained from distance running to run sprints, perform resisted running (on a hill, with a parachute, or pulling a tire), and torture myself with plyometric exercises like bounding and the dreaded squat jump.
On August 15, 1990, I reported to my first college training camp at the University of California, Davis weighing 180 pounds. I had gained almost 10 pounds of what I thought was pure muscle by not only lifting weights and getting plenty of rest, but also by drinking a gallon of whole milk every day, something I must have read somewhere. (My advice is to never try that; my mom, who was footing the bill since I spent all of my time training instead of working, was not pleased and with the average summer temperature in Davis, CA hovering around 100 degrees, I lost it all and was down to about 175 in two weeks, anyway.) I was ready for the testing that we did every year at the beginning of camp. And to my utter disappointment, my training program hadn’t worked. Well, not entirely or nearly to the degree I’d hoped for and expected. I did get faster and stronger. At least I thought I did- I hadn’t done any pre-training testing to see the difference. But either way, I fell short of my strength and speed goals, bench pressing well south of 300 pounds and running well north of 4.5 seconds in the forty. Even though there were more tests we had to perform, such as the vertical jump and something called the “T” test that measures quickness, agility, and the ability to change direction, the “bench” and “forty”, as they are called, were considered the two most important- if not for the coaches and evaluators than certainly for the players. And even though I’d fared well in the other tests (I’ve always been more quick than fast and could jump fairly well), I was extremely disappointed in my results for what I considered the two tests most indicative of a football player’s value.
Still, I was not discouraged and didn’t let the results of my physical testing discourage me. I went on that year to have what I’d consider a successful Freshman season, seeing action in several games. More importantly, one year removed from high school, where access to professional training in athletic performance was rare, I was now in an environment that fostered physical development. So immediately following the season, I once again began on the road toward reaching my full potential. The goals, as I remember, hadn’t changed much, if at all. For some reason, 300 was the magical number in the bench press, at least for the skill positions (the small, quick guys that play positions like cornerback and wide receiver). 4.5 (seconds in the forty) seemed to be the equivalent on the speed side. So there they were- my goals. Again laid out in front of me. I remember writing them in a notebook I kept. I remember taping the numbers to my wall. And in the dead of winter, when Davis, CA gets cold and dreary, there I was, with my partner in crime Shawn Parker, running in the rain. There I was at the “Recreation (Rec) Center” at 10 pm, again with my partner in crime, lifting weights. If I was being completely honest, I might even admit that I enjoyed this part, training for the season, as much as, if not more than, I enjoyed playing during the season. I think it’s the eternal optimist in me, the feeling that there is always one more thing I can do to get better, to achieve success. The reality is that the offseason is the only real time an athlete has to improve- at least physically. During the year, any time spent training in the weight room or conditioning is mainly for maintenance, injury prevention, or rehabilitation. And while certainly muscle memory and specific skill development can be gained through repetitions during the season, appreciable gains in the physiology that supports these skills–quickness, speed, and strength– usually are not. As soon as the offseason started, then, I was gung-ho about getting better, poised and ready for a fresh new start. Armed with my first college offseason training program, as well as access to more information (from the library and physical education department), I was certain I’d succeed in hitting my goals this time.
The next football season finally arrived. Another training camp. Another round of measurement, measurables (the term used for the recording of height, weight, strength, and speed tests), and skills testing. And again, I fell short. I think I remember being much closer to the bench press goal than that for the forty yard dash time. But I distinctly remember not making it over the hump on either. Bummer. (Knowing how I acted back then, I probably used a much more powerful word for this blow to my ego and optimism) I was again extremely disappointed. But again, though I was disappointed, I was not disheartened. I played the season still– after all they weren’t going to postpone play until I met my goals– and had a decent year.
My college career was derailed shortly in my third year because of a nagging ankle injury that almost required surgery. The coaching staff and I thought it best I take the season off and redshirt, something most college athletes do at some point (usually in their freshman season), anyway. With the added time to heal–and train–the goals I set for myself were more aggressive. I wrote them down, but kept them to myself. I didn’t tell anyone what they were, and will not tell you now. That’s because I realized that summer a lesson I’ve remembered and try to apply ever since- Unconditional Love. Not for any one special person in my life, although if you want to have successful relationships, that’s a good place to start. Not for myself, even though that is crucial to a healthy self-image and the confidence needed to navigate our lives. No, I’m talking about an unconditional love for work. I’m referring to an unconditional love for the blood, sweat, and tears; the sacrifice and dedication; the hard work that must be done; the price that must be paid for any real reward. A love for something–work–without any expected reciprocity. A payment made toward your future without any guarantee of reimbursement.
This revelation was not easy to grasp or accept. After all, we work for a reason. Right? We do things because we expect a specific result. We diet so that we can lose weight. We work out so that we can get stronger. We study and read so that we can increase our knowledge. And yes, we love others so that they will love us back. But therein lies the paradox. That summer I learned, and if not totally embraced then certainly stopped fighting against, what I might consider one of the more perverse of human conditions- that in order to grab something you want, you have to stop reaching for it. That bears repeating because it is such a contradiction that many of us have trouble with it initially. If we want something in life, we have to stop trying to get it. Now, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t set goals for ourselves, then go after them with determination and perseverance. And I’m not advocating an acceptance of mediocrity. What I am saying, instead, is that once we determine what we want in life and what it will take to achieve that, we must work with singular focus on those steps toward the goal. Not the goal itself. Instead of focusing so intensely on losing 50 pounds, for example, focus on eliminating sugar and starches and eating six small meals per day. Instead of focusing on getting straight A’s this semester, focus on spending three hours per night studying. Instead of coveting more love from your mate, spend your energy on showing him or her more love. In my case, instead of worrying whether or not I was on pace to meet my goal of bench pressing 300 pounds and running a 4.5 forty yard dash, I instead concentrated on devising the training program that gave me the best chance of achieving those goals, and sticking to it. I recognized during that summer of my third year in college that it really didn’t matter what the results were of my work, what the fruits were of my labor. I was going to work as hard as I could without any expectation. I was going to play football at the end of it all–the offseason workout program, that is–either way. I was going to work as hard as I could to reach my goals. I more clearly than ever recognized that, even though the relationship between work and goal achievement was not a linear, or necessarily causal, one; quitting or giving up wasn’t an option. I accepted that even if working my butt off didn’t guarantee I’d move five steps forward, being lazy or lackluster in my approach was almost certainly going to take me five steps backward. I decided a promise, or lack thereof, of being rewarded with an impressive bench press or stellar forty was not going to change how I approached the offseason. And as a result of this agreement I made with myself, the latter part of that summer and the two remaining offseasons were much more productive. Not only was I more relaxed and focused, but my energy, instead of being spent on goals for which I had no control, was effectively applied to specific steps that I could measure and master.
BUSINESS WORLD APPLICATION
This rule has served me well ever since. In what has become a selfish, egocentric working society (or maybe it’s always been that way; I was just too young or naive to notice it), where everybody seems to be looking–ethically or otherwise–for ways to move up the ladder of success, I have preferred and practiced a different approach. Instead of scheming and calculating what I needed to do to impress the boss or meet external expectations, I have focused on what is necessary for success at my jobs, then poured my heart and soul into those endeavors. Once it has been made clear what has been expected of me, which is an integral first step towards approaching your career, business, or life in this manner, I have done everything in my power to succeed at meeting and exceeding those expectations. I have spent little time, if any, worrying when my next raise or promotion would come. I’ve wasted little energy comparing myself to others in my own or parallel career paths. Sure, like any athlete (no longer in the literal, official sense, but eternally in the figurative and emotional sense), I’ve looked up at the scoreboard on occasion or peeked over to the guy in the other lane to see where he was relative to me. But when these lapses in focus occur, speaking for just about every coach I ever had, I quickly remind myself not to worry about the score or the clock or really, even the opponent. “Focus on the game, on your responsibilities!” “Don’t look at the clock or the score!” “Pretend the score is 0-0.” “Don’t worry about them; worry about you!” And my favorite, “If we do what we do, we’ll be fine.”
I admit this concept is simplistic, some might argue oversimplified. It is human nature, opponents to this approach might argue, to take notice of those around you and their accomplishments compared to yours. And hundreds of years of research have proven that we, as human beings, are all susceptible to the laws of motivation. Abraham Maslow proved as much in 1943 when he wrote The Theory of Human Motivation, a paper that reduced human behavior into a hierarchy of five needs. My rebuttal is as simple as the opponents find my original claim. Most working professionals–indeed, most of the people who will read this book–have met the two most basic human needs: “Physiological” (food, water, sex, sleep, etc.) and “Safety” (employment, family, security of body). The third need, “Love and Belonging”, is usually met outside of the workplace, but may be filled, in whole or in part, by the job itself. But after that, the level at which the first three human needs are met, the arguments against my approach to “keeping your head down and working” approach do have some credence. The need for “Esteem” (self-confidence, respect from others, achievement) indeed is often met by shooting for the goals laid out in front of us by others. A pat on the back or acknowledgment in a company gathering, the meeting of sales or other quotas, and a raise granted in an annual review all serve to directly fulfill the need for esteem. But I’d argue these are ephemeral, fleeting solutions. They leave you feeling powerless, at the mercy of others. What happens when people stop recognizing your accomplishments because they expect them? Or they quickly raise your quotas because “you knocked the previous ones out of the park”? Or what happens when you find out you may have gotten a higher raise if you’d asked for it? The elation and joy, which is often a real physiological high because of the release of endorphins, quickly dissipates. My approach, instead, calls for filling this need with hard work, a dedication to the process instead of the result. Moreover, the feelings of achievement and esteem that result from this modus operandi, namely real respect from others and the recognition as someone to go to for answers and help; are enduring, sustainable, and most importantly almost entirely under your control. In product management terms, it’s the difference between coming up with catchy and clever marketing tactics that sell your product and building a lasting and powerful brand that allows your product to sell itself.
REAL WORLD APPLICATION
Working hard without any expected reward has several personal applications, as well. The silliest example that comes to mind is the disciplining of my children. Every time I or their mom send them to timeout, they quickly ask “for how long?” Of course, like many parents I tell them I’ll let them know when they are done and to just sit there and be quiet. But the lesson I’m trying to teach, that they certainly still haven’t grasped, is one we could all learn. It holds true for just about anything for which we are eagerly waiting. How long do you have to keep up your exercise program before you lose weight? I don’t know, but what’s the alternative, get heavier and feel worse about yourself? How many dates do you have to go on before you find your true love? I don’t know, but again, what’s the alternative, to go through life alone without any real intimate connection with another human being? And perhaps the most applicable and effective usage of this mantra lies in career and personal networking. Building an alliance of friends, advisors, and mentors requires a sincere desire to give to and help others. Because of this distinction, I prefer the term “relationship builder” to “networker”, a concept revealed in The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. When you actively find people to help and new ways to help them, without expected reciprocity, you’ll find the rewards that come your way are unlimited.