As I get older I've become more of a sports fan. Not the high fiving, chest bumping, Bud Light drinking sports fans we see on TV; I hate those ones as much as you do (if they even exist). And it's not the victory dances, the high scoring, and braggadocious attitudes that I enjoy; I could do without all that. I love soccer, and they rarely score.
I love sports because I like watching human beings embrace our weaknesses, and challenge ourselves to do better. A golfer is playing against his own mind more than the other players, a cyclist is pedaling against the physical pain from exhaustion, and a football player pushes his brain to make split second decisions in a violent and hostile environment.
I was recently at the Business of Software Conference in Boston last week, and one of the speakers , Mike Muhney, compared business to a sport -- a contact sport according to him. Mike likes to use the sports analogy heavily, and frames just about everything he has to say in terms of beating the competition.
So you might be surprised to learn that I resent that competitive attitude. It reduces our life's work to simply beating a competitor; another person, company, or team. It's selling us short as humans, and, in my view, insulting to athletes.
There was a beautiful moment a few weeks ago. It was game 6 of the American League Championship Series, and the Red Sox were playing the Detroit Tigers at home in Boston's Fenway Park. Shane Victorino, the Red Sox right fielder, had been struggling to get a hit in the series. But with the bases loaded in the 8th inning, he stepped up to the plate, focused on the job at hand, overcame his doubts, and hammered a grand slam home run over the big left field wall known as the "Green Monster". That single swing of the bat generated 4 runs, putting the Sox into the lead, which they would hold for the next two innings to win the game and go to the World Series.
The fans in Boston, knowing how much it had bothered Shane to be nearly hitless, knowing how much he craved to contribute to the team, and how discouraging it had been to come up empty handed, again and again, stood on their feet and applauded as he walked back out into his position in right field after his moment of glory a few minutes before. Shane was overcome with emotion, putting his baseball glove up over his face.
I could go on and on with moments like this. When Michael Phelps forced a victory where there was none to be had in the 2008 Olympics, the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Giants defeat of the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2007 season (a painful one for me).
It also really bothers me when people invoke the common fallacy that certain people are born with talents and abilities that the rest of us don't have. Labron James is a champion because he has recognized his weaknesses and worked really hard to minimize them while amplifying his strengths. There is no way I'll ever beat Labron on the basketball court because, it's true, he has some "gifts". But I can take his work ethic, his process, and his attitude to my sport, mountaineering, and even to my job, building web software.
Maybe I appreciate sports because of my athletic career as a collegiate rower. We dedicated 9 months of the year to our conditioning. We had two workout sessions each day; mornings in the weight room and afternoons out on the freezing cold lake. It was all for 7 or 8 races lasting only 6 minutes each, and there was never a TV crew to be found. It was all for glory, and that was better than any trophy.
Athletes take a risk. To have a chance at victory, you must pour everything you've got into improving yourself, preparing for your moment. And when that moment comes, and you fail, after giving it your all, the disappointment can be just a crushing as the victory is uplifting. It's a risk.
But it's that risk which is the essence of life itself. Imagine for a moment living your life without taking a single risk. Personally, I can't bear the thought of it. We'd never improve as a species. That's why going for glory feels so good, and why we get up and try again when we miss the mark.
We're not competing against one another in sports, and we certainly aren't competing against one another in software or business. We're competing against the human species of our past, forcing ourselves to improve on what's already been done. We don't need to use sports as an analogy. Sports simply provide a container, with defined boundaries, where we can risk everything to test the limits of human capability. And the rest of us can watch the few elite practitioners, and learn from their processes for improvement, and be inspired by their courage to risk it all.
I'll be standing in front my TV rooting for somebody, clapping way too loudly, and screaming words of encouragement as if they could hear me.
By the way, if you have not visited the links I referenced in this post, you really should: