Success is more within our power than we tend to think — even for big, hairy, scary goals.
It is late evening, almost 8:30 p.m. Half of my Tae Kwon Do (TKD) school already lies in darkness; they turned the lights off half an hour ago. I square off against a kicking bag, alone in the huge room, except for a few jiu-jitsu fighters grappling on the back mat. I have assigned myself a few hundred more kicks to complete in the next half-hour before the school closes. A half-healed injury at the front of my right knee throbs. The room never heats up all the way in winter, and the cold, dry air has caused the calloused portion of my left big toe to split all the way down to the pink. The bloody crevasse oozes and shoots pain up my foot every time I pivot to kick. It doesn't matter. My goal is to become an Olympic athlete. To even have a prayer of reaching that goal, I need to use this hour, right now.
Watching Olympic athletes on TV, it can seem like these people are superhuman. Surely they must possess extraordinary talent, an unusual genetic gifting that elevates them to another plane beyond the rest of us mere mortals. I know I thought so three years ago. At the time, I worked a 9-to-5 as a webmaster for the same small, Christian college I attended as an undergrad. I practiced TKD recreationally a few evenings a week, alongside other interests, such as independent filmmaking.
Then I encountered Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and everything changed. Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1996, argues in Outliers that success in almost any endeavor is scarcely ever the result of raw "merit." The defining factor, across the board, is the number of hours dedicated to an activity. He gives a number, in fact — the "10,000 hour rule." It takes roughly 10,000 hours to master any complex skill-set.
Some people are able, by their own inclinations and the societal opportunities set before them, to complete those 10,000 hours. Some are not. In one of the saddest examples he gives, he describes the rosters of the most elite Canadian hockey teams, which are overfull with youths born in January, February and March. The cutoff date for age-class hockey in Canada is Jan. 1. This means that a boy who turns 10 in December is playing against the ones who turned 10 back in January and who are therefore larger and stronger. The January boys appear more successful and so are picked for the better teams, where they get more and better training. The achievement gap widens until it is impossible to overcome. How many December boys, then, walk away from hockey thinking they are failures, when in reality the problem is the system?
"Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success?" asks Gladwell. "Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung.... We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by 'we' I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t."
Turning a Corner
At the time I read Gladwell's book, 2011 found me in a painful spot. Like many 20-somethings, I had lived a rocky four years since college graduation. I was single, with no relationship prospects. At least I was employed in a difficult economy and living with roommates instead of my parents, but my job offered no further steps for advancement. Every new direction I investigated on my own shortly petered out. God was using those years to teach me the art of finding gratitude and joy in simple service, but the process involved looking right in the face of depression, loneliness and rejection. I had to ask the deepest questions about who I was as a child of God, as a human being and as a woman.
Gladwell's book gave me a solid number to measure against what I had learned through ideas and experience. Ten thousand hours. That's 20 hours a week for 10 years. Or 40 hours a week for five years. If someone is willing to invest this time, insists Gladwell, they have a fair chance at becoming a chess grandmaster, a violin virtuoso — or a top athlete.
I knew instantly that this was true for arenas of the mind, and I became curious about other areas of effort. I was homeschooled in an early era when we did not have access to school sports. My specialties were mental fields, particularly math and languages, which especially reward those who are willing to put in the hours and punish those who don't. But one especially cringe-worthy picture of me in the eighth grade sums up the situation. Just after winning the joint homeschool-and-Christian-private-school spelling bee, I am standing on the stage with the other kids to receive my award. I am overweight, and my hair is greasy. I am wearing a long, dark blue dress, and my white sneakers with white socks poke out from underneath. Cool, savvy athlete? Not so much.
At least in my late teens, my mom learned about the benefits of heavy weightlifting, and she and my dad used it to get healthier and to pass on knowledge to us kids. She also forced us to sign up for TKD, and I quickly fell in love with it, especially with the sparring. I loved the rush of competing with my friends in class. Alongside the regular classes, however, ran the competition team practices. The young adults who inhabited these higher-level practices could execute skills with such speed and accuracy that it was obvious they were the real athletes. The rest of us were just playing. Once, when I started to get stronger and faster with my weightlifting, my master asked me to spar one of the team girls. I scored one point, and she took it as a personal insult and hammered me with blows that left me winded and crying, even through the protective pads. Fear imprisoned me from then on; I never tried again to compete with one of the "real" athletes.
But now, a decade later, the crazy idea wouldn't go away. What if I had allowed a bully to write lies into my story? What if I did put in the hours? Could I get good, really good at TKD?
It took me a while to make my decision. Fear paralyzes, especially the oldest specters of our lives, the ones that have been squeezing our throats with their bony hands for as long as we can remember. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear, perhaps, of making the "wrong" choice of a life direction and dooming oneself forever. But here is a truth: Perfect love casts out fear. If we are diligently seeking the will of our heavenly Father, He wants to make himself known. He loves us and has no desire to play games with us or to fool us into destroying our lives. Moreover, He works all things together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). It is literally impossible for Christians who love the Lord to thwart His purposes to work His deep good in our lives.
So I joined the excellent competition team at my new TKD school in Virginia, and I started to train. I quit my 9-to-5 to start a Ph.D. program in ancient languages and launch a freelance website business to give me more flexible hours. Many of my fears came true. I spent most of my first year losing tournaments and getting injured. But I persevered, and I innovated, and I learned, and lately I have been winning.
Will I reach my goal of becoming an Olympic athlete in TKD? The odds are not in my favor, but I don't believe in odds. I believe in an active God who is at work crafting a story all around us and through us every day, hour after hour. If I can, I plan to find out what 10,000 of those hours spent on TKD will look like.
Copyright 2014 Sarah Pride. All rights reserved.