In 1991, Lindsay Davenport played in her first professional tennis match. She was 15 years old.
Over the next 20 years, Davenport would go on to have one of the greatest tennis careers in recent history. She won three different Grand Slam titles. She won the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal. She was ranked the Number 1 female tennis player in the world eight different times. In total, Davenport earned over $22 million in prize money throughout her career.
I had the chance to meet Davenport at the 2012 US Open. Later that night, she fielded some questions from our group and I asked her this…
“Lindsay, sports can teach people a lot of lessons. What lessons did you learn during your time as a professional tennis player that you didn’t learn as an amateur?”
Full disclosure: I had a personal motive with this question. I played baseball in college, but not professionally. So I wanted to know, “What did I miss?”
Davenport’s first response was to talk about how she had to grow up fast. She mentioned the power of the media and learning to live her life in front of a crowd.
But then she shifted gears and talked about improving at her craft and the lessons of competition, hard work, and perseverance. Those things, she said, were learned long before she became a professional.
In other words, to learn about what it’s like to live as a professional athlete, you need to be a professional athlete. But to learn the lessons of playing sports, you just need to play your sport.
Excellence Isn’t Required for Growth
Our world is becoming more and more obsessed with comparison and validation. The style of thinking that is becoming dangerously common is “If you can’t be number one or number two, then you might as well not play at all.”
(This belief was actually celebrated in my MBA program, which may or may not surprise you.)
But according to Davenport, you don’t need to be a professional to learn the most important lessons in sports. You just need to bust your butt as an athlete, regardless of the level you’re playing at. I’d say it’s that way in the rest of life as well. Mastering your craft isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself.
To put it another way, you’ll learn more from the process of pursuing excellence than from the products of achieving it.
It’s More Important to Start, Than to Succeed
I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
What if the choice to be curious was all that was required to become smarter, stronger, and more skilled? What if the willingness to try something new, even if it felt uncomfortable, was all that it took to start the slow march towards greatness?
- Are you curious enough to get in the gym and try it, even if you’ll look stupid?
- Are you willing to be vulnerable and put your skin in the game to start your own business?
- Are you eager enough to improve your work that you’ll battle through the frustration of producing something mediocre?
It all boils down to this: Whether you’ll end up being the best or the worst, are you willing to start?
The more I look at things this way, the more I believe that the willingness to start is the littlest thing in life that makes the biggest difference.
Step onto the field. Stand up in the meeting. Raise your hand in class.
Get under the bar. Walk up to the podium. Ask the first question.
Take a risk, get started, and contribute something. To your team, to your family, to your job, to your community. Whether or not you end up being number one in the world is irrelevant. Most of the time, the value you provide isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself to provide it. This is especially true at first.
Having the courage to get started is more important than succeeding because the people who consistently get started are the only ones who can end up finishing anything.
Get Started: Life Isn’t a Dress Rehearsal
I often write about what it means to live a healthy life.
I can’t think of any skill more critical to the active pursuit of a healthy life than the willingness to start. Everything that signifies a happy, healthy and fulfilled existence — strong relationships, vibrant creativity, valuable work, a physical lifestyle, etc. — it all requires a willingness to get started over and over again.
Take note: being the best isn’t required to be happy or fulfilled, but being in the game is necessary.
Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Only one person lives in the spotlight, but everyone benefits from stepping on stage.
Which stage will you step onto? What game will you play? How will you get started?
P.S. If you want more practical ideas for how to build new habits (and break bad ones), check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.