Teaching Leadership at Western, I have amassed numerous books written to inspire success and greatness. Among them are Good to Great, Stand Out, Serial Winner, How Successful People Think, and Superbosses. I recently finished View from the Top. It reminded me of Zig Ziglar’s bestseller, See You at the Top. There is an unwritten assumption that reading such literature will get one to the top rung. One will reach out and grasp world-class achievement. At least one can hope. All of which made an article in yesterday’s NY Times so wonderfully refreshing.
On the same Opinion Page, the one other columnists like David Brooks and Ross Douthat and other intellectual greats use to expound their views on politics and world affairs, was this article by Karen Rinaldi, “(It’s Great to) Suck at Something.” I could not help but immediately ask myself, “What do I suck at?” It’s a conversation one should have only with oneself. Certainly not your spouse. Heather would tell you I suck when it comes to putting things together like Barbeques or Lawn Spreaders. The five foot burn spot in the lawn, where all of the fertilizer spilled out, is the sad evidence. And then there was the swing set debacle when Nate and Kate were young.
In the case of Karen Rinaldi, it is surfing. She has surfed for 15 years, traveled to beaches around the world, and spent thousands on the latest surfboard technology. But, to use her words, “I suck at it.” She falls and flails. Watch her on a board (when and if she is on one) and one will not find one on a thruster, carving up and down a wave. One will witness epic falls. But it’s okay. As she notes, “It’s great to suck at something.”
Part of the greatness is experiencing what all of us run short on—patience and humility. I learned this in golf. While the swing of a tennis racquet comes natural for me, I suck at swinging a golf club. Someone once secretly videoed me at the T and showed it to a Sunday night church meeting. It did wonders for my humbleness.
But there is something else that is part of the greatness—the freedom to pursue the futile. By taking off the pressure of having to excel, we allow ourselves to live in the moment. Released from the burden of needing to be better than good, needing to claw our way to the top, we can relax a bit. We can breathe and laugh, and see things for what most of them are-brief pleasures from God to enjoy, no matter how good or not so good we are.
Most perfectionists do not enjoy such freedom. Take the case of Pat Riley, NBA legend, who has won nine championships with notable teams like the Knicks and the Lakers, has a home in Malibu with a dynamite view overlooking the Pacific, and has written numerous books (yes, on Leadership). In Wright Thompson’s recent article “Pat Riley’s Final Test,” he makes the point that Riley is perpetually seeking out opportunities to prove himself worthy of his reputation. It’s never ending. The problem is that every time he proves himself, he puts off his future by another day. In the process, he also misses the moment.
Which brings me back to Rinaldi. She has found that sucking at something, where the stakes are low, can lead one to a better place. Sometimes it is okay to say, “See you at the bottom.” Not only is there more patience and humility. We might acquire an empathy for others who suck at something (like preaching or writing or cooking or playing an instrument–or walking with God) and be far less critical. Sucking at something also means we still live in the possibility. One day, I might decipher the directions and actually put something together right. Maybe I will master golf (wait…no, this would be living in the impossibility). One day, we might learn to pray, truly experience the power of God, and come to terms with what it is He is willing for our lives. One day we might get to a place of perfect peace and total trust. And then we will be at the top.