If you are looking for a Summer read, a book with a real story, powerfully written on a topic you didn’t know you cared about, but really on the topic common to us all – that of human struggle, loss and redemption, and hope – pick up a copy of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.
Did you know that rowing was the first athletic competition between two American colleges? It took place in 1852 between Harvard and Yale. Did you further know that few sports require the synchronic precision and power of a team, with zero room for error, like rowing? Or did you know that rowing uses essentially every muscle in the body and requires almost superhuman endurance?
The Intercollegiate Rowing Association held its first event in 1895 at Poughkeepsie. In 1929, as many 125,000 people turned out to see the competition in person, and millions more tuned in to the hissy, scratchy radio signal to “witness” the event.
Besides a well-told and remarkable story, The Boys in the Boat brims with life lessons, analogies for what it takes to succeed. I found myself listening for the nuggets of truth I could take with me to my work and to my personal journey.
You have to fight through the pain to win the prize.
Everybody hurts. What separates the champion from the rest of the field is the ability to fight through the pain, to keep your focus when your entire being screams, “Quit! Ease up! I need a break!”
Once you begin yielding to the pain, it is a difficult trend to stop. Then, it becomes easy to develop a “poor me” mentality and assume the victors were carried to their achievements on beds of ease while no one else knows the troubles you’ve known.
Bitterness is a sugar pill.
You don’t hear so much about “sugar pills” anymore, but back in the day (whatever that means), doctors would sometimes prescribe a pill to a patient whose ailment he believed to be psychosomatic. The pill contained no medicine but it made the patient “feel better” anyways.
Joe Rantz, The protagonist in Boys in the Boat, lost his mother when he was very young. Before he reached his teens, his father and step-mother abandoned him and he essentially raised himself. He could have chosen bitterness and anger and most would agree with him that he had every right to do just that. And where would that choice have left him? On skid row? Maybe an alcoholic or drug abuser? A man with an excuse? Less than a footnote in history?
One thing is sure: had he chosen bitterness and rage, he would have never worn an Olympic gold medal.
But anger can feel good. Rage releases certain internal chemicals that make us feel “good” for a few seconds. But the feeling is fleeting and the reward is failure.
It’s not just how hard you work; it’s how well you work and how well you work with others.
Hard work is better in the context of teamwork. You accomplish more. You enjoy it more because it is shared joy and shared joy is an exponential multiplier.
Joy is multiplied. Burdens are divided.
Someone said, “Hard work is its own reward.” I cannot help but wonder if that was the person who worked his ass off and never succeeded because he worked hard but not smart. And he did it alone.
Flexibility is a sign of true strength.
Since 2005, I have been in the Catastrophe business. I spent the first eight years working as an adjuster. I have seen the devastation caused by high winds and inflexible trees. Pine trees are notorious for their beauty and their size. They can grow to as high as 200 feet! But they are inflexible. Let a high-wind storm blow through some piney woods and those “mighty” trees snap like twigs. Only they are not twigs! They weigh thousands of pounds – in fact, the average weight of a full-grown Pine tree is 5,200 pounds – and when they crash into a structure, the results are, well, catastrophic.
In the 1999 – 2000 winter, We were living in east Texas – in the woods, the Piney Woods. A winter storm brought days and days of freezing rain and sleet. Ice built up on the Pines. They were beautiful to see, the massive icicles dangling from great branches on the trees that stretched to the heavens. But then, as the weight of the ice built up on their limbs, they began to snap. They took down power lines, interrupting our electrical service, turning our wood-framed home into a freeze box. I remember a dark winter’s night, the entire family huddled together in the living room under piles of blankets, listening to what sounded like a war in the woods. The trees were snapping and crashing, like bombs exploding all around us.
Palm trees, on the other hand, can reach heights of 70 feet and are found in more tropical regions, meaning they are often right in the path of the mother of storms, the Hurricane. How many times have you seen footage on the Weather channel of Palm trees bending under the force of massive winds until they are nearly horizontal, yet they don’t snap? They are strong enough to bend.
Can you be staunch in your principles, while accommodating the viewpoints of others? Can you yield the floor? Can you listen and accept when a better plan or idea is presented? Can you be wrong but not defensive?
The challenge is both your friend and your foe.
The very thing you must conquer is often the thing that supports you, that carries you, that comforts you. How does one get physically stronger? By working out, by lifting weights, by stressing muscles, pushing them to do more than they want to do. How does the mind expand? By focusing, digging in, working through difficult concepts, concentrating on hard problems.
Strain is the price of strength. Pain is the pathway to progress.
And the journey…the journey is just as important as the destination. Maybe more so…
Row! Row! Row your boat!