I spend a lot of time these days talking about careers, which is a switch. My students are motivated and curious, and they want to know what it takes to get ahead. The irony, of course, is that the students who are motivated enough to come to my office to talk are exactly the ones likely to get ahead and not to need my help. I was talking to one particularly motivated student on Thursday when I made a comment along the lines of, "If you're good, that will be recognized, and promotions will be available."
He stopped me and asked what it meant to be good. I paused. I started to answer. I paused and thought about it some more. And then I realized that I don't really know. Sure, I always
know it when I see it, but I cannot much talk about it. So I pieced together some kind of answer, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
it mean? Because I am a scientist, this drives me crazy. I hate to know and
to not know. So I have been making mental lists. I have been doing principle components analysis in my head. But mostly, I have been thinking of the great people I know. And that alone has made this a worthwhile thought experiment.
The great people whom I have known always seem to have an extra gear. When they need it, they can do whatever they're doing with more intensity, more focus. Because of this, I suppose, we see many sports figures labeled as great. The scoreboard is obvious. You can watch an athlete impose their will upon others. I have seen it done, from the high school soccer field to Michael Jordan, to Derrick Thomas coming around the outside, to how many damned times I watched John Elway drive down the field in the fourth quarter and rip my heart out.
Sometimes I read about people, and I then understand the reasons why they are great. Often times it is a coach, as athletes (at least the male ones) are often incapable of complete sentences. One of my favorite people is current Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. I don't know the man, but I would go to war for him. In an interview, he talked about blitzing in obvious passing situations. You see, the blitz leaves you vulnerable. It almost always means single coverage on at least one receiver. Conventional wisdom suggests that you have to be careful blitzing against good passing teams. But it's aggressive. If you believe in yourself. If you believe in greatness, you have to blitz. Gunther does. "If you're going to throw, we're coming," he said. Seven words, but they mean so much more. I have since decided that this is my theory of life: "If you're going to throw, we're coming." It says it all. If there is any imposing of will to be done, we will be the ones doing it, thank you.
The other half of my personal philosophy was best put by former Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams. It's hard for me to recall the exact words of his Carolina drawl, but he said something to the extent of, "If you and I want the same thing, I'm usually going to get it because I will simply outwork your tail." And, yes, "tail" is the one word I am sure that Roy used. Luckily I inherited this kind of insane work ethic from my dad (via his dad, and so on). It's amazing how far you can get just by working hard. Hard work made me the editor of the NMSU student newspaper when I had no business getting that job (looking at my resume). Hard work got me a competitive national copy editing internship when I am a notorious poor speller and grammarian. Hard work got me promoted twice in my first 15 months working as a journalist. And hard work got me though the rigors of graduate school and landed this great job. And by hard work, I mean the kind of hard work that is fueled often times just by making sure that no one works harder.
I suppose that you can be a great poet without being competitive. But in most other pursuits, you just have to want it more. And my favorite people on this planet are usually those who do. They are the ones who form this cadre of long-term friends that persist beyond geographic location. They are the ones that I would pick first for my dodge ball team. And I'd just bet that they, too, get goosebumps when they listen to the stupid Gatorade commercial that says, "No matter what you play you better come with it, 'cause it's 90 feet to first no matter where home is."