You Miss All the Shots You Don’t Take

I want to take this opportunity to talk about a player with whom I shared a season in the sun on an intramural softball team a scant three and a half decades ago. I may have forgotten every theorem from my Non-Euclidean Geometry and Convexity course from about the same epoch, but I remember vividly our human vacuum cleaner of a short stop. He was a black hole on the infield, through which no ball could penetrate. He could move to his right, he seemed to hover parallel to the ground absorbing hard hit balls. He could leap half his body length into the air stealing base hits. Watching him from my position in left field was a joy.

He was so good, so extraordinarily good. He was such a natural athlete...

... that he never even got a tryout for a division three college team.

Never mind a shot at a professional minor league team.

It's a steep pyramid in the world of grown up sports. There are several hundred major league baseball players in a country of several hundred million people. To say nothing of the Dominican Republic, Japan and other climes where many young people dream of playing under the lights as adults.

I wonder, all these years later, if our short stop was happy with his ability. He was far and away the best the player on our team. He would have been the worst player by far on any real college team. Was he satisfied? Was he pleased with his ability?

Or did he spend his whole life thinking about what could have been had his skills been even better? Did he spend years fixated on "If only"?

Because if the only way he could be happy was to be the best ever, his odds of being happy were slender indeed. If he could be happy knowing he had given it his best shot, then his odds of contentment were significantly higher.

Stated more grammatically: all this emphasis on excellence leaves me cold. All this talk about being the best makes me ill.

Because, by definition, only one person can be the best. What's the point of all that striving if all you care about is winning?

Is Willie Mays a loser because he has "only" 660 life time home runs? At fifth on the all-time list, he's not the "best ever."

One of my favorite athletes ran a 18:52 for five kilometers in the last race of his senior year of high school. He took the event seriously and ran hard; he had trained hard for four years.

He threw up at mile two, but didn't slow down.

Had he been enrolled at a high school across town, his time of 18:52 would have been the best performance at the 5K distance in the 50 year history of the school. His name would have been printed in big letters on the "All Time Best" placard. At his school, on the other hand, 18:52 wasn't good enough to put him in the top seven runners on that day.

If this athlete were concerned with winning, he would have nothing to celebrate. Because he was concerned with "only" doing the best he could, he has a memory for a lifetime: he ran faster than he ever had before; he ran so hard he puked; he didn't quit.

If he defines winning narrowly as beating Kenenisa Bekele's world record time of 12:37, he'll have a lifetime of disappointment.* It seems unlikely that the high school kid would knock off two minutes per mile from his best.

The take away for parents is obvious: stop focusing on grades, stop emphasizing norm referenced test scores, stop convincing your school children that they can only win if someone else loses. At the risk of sounding like Pogo the Possum: The only person to whom they can compare themselves is them.

Imagine a class where the requirements are as modest as they are meaningless, where students comply rather than learn, where grades are assigned on the basis of posture rather than insight. What does an 'A' in this class mean? Imagine to the contrary, a class where students learn to love reading and talking about literature. The skills and the insights gained from this class might be more important that the letter on the report card.

Here are some easy riddles to make this point:

1) What do you call the person who is graduated last in her medical school class? Answer: Doctor.

2) What do you call the person who is graduated first in her high school class but is stressed and unhappy, unable to learn anything unless she will be tested about the material, and generally miserable? That's right: miserable. (I see a fair number of these students in my practice. It breaks my heart. They know how to win; but they don't know how to live.)

3) What's the point of winning an Olympic medal if, within the next year, the athlete gains a hundred pounds and never runs again? Answer: no point at all.

4) What happened to Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan who finished third in the 1964 Olympics behind Abebe Bikila and Basil Heatley? (An obscure bit of marathon trivia admittedly.) Answer: suicide. The third best distance runner in the world kills himself because he isn't good enough? What's wrong with that picture?

If you'll forgive another running metaphor, here's my new goal: I'm not concerned about winning; I'm not concerned about running faster. I just want to be running at age 70. I want to have nothing left at the end of my life. I want to go out as a wisp of smoke. I don't care if I run faster, I don't care of I run farther. I just want to run until my legs fall off.

And when my legs do fall off from running too many miles over too many years, I'll start in a new category as I pull myself along with my arms.

I suggest you all tell your kids the same thing: try as hard as you can for as long as you can. The heck with the grades; the heck with class rank; the heck with everything except giving it your best shot.

Because you miss all the shots you don't take.

*Unrelated question: How many of the top seven 5K times in the history of the planet Earth have been run by Kenyans or Ethiopia? Hint: All seven.

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