Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Amazing Talent, Amazing Challenges

My family and I have enjoy watching the Olympics, and this year has been no different. It's been interesting to learn emerging sports which previously haven't been prominent in the Winter Olympics program. The first Winter Olympics that I somewhat remember was Sarajevo 1984, and I'm pretty sure that half-pipe and slope-style courses were but a gleam in the IOC's eye. It's a change to be patriotic and root for the United States without being over-the-top jingoistic and as far as family bonding time, you could do a lot worse.

But what I think is most compelling about the Olympics is the drama that comes along with people who are immensely gifted and talented trying to reach the pinnacle of their sport in the arena of competition. These are people who are the crème de la crème who have devoted years of their lives to a seminal moment to perform on the greatest world stage in their craft. And despite the clichés maintaining otherwise, their hard work won't necessarily yield success. For a moment they could have a bad day, be sick, endure equipment failure or run into a fluke patch of ice or a red-hot competitor and all they'll be left with is the platitudes of commentators and fans who celebrate a good effort that just fell short. And for many of these athletes, I suspect they'll go through this crisis of identity. What do you do when you've accomplished everything in your field? What do you do if you've failed and that window has now closed?

What I find interesting is how sports give us a glimpse of how identity and giftedness often are at play within our own lives. About a month ago, there was a raging controversy when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a terrific play to clinch his team's ticket to the Super Bowl, then proceeded to publicly excoriate an opposing wide receiver in a bizarre rant on national television on how awesome he was and how his opponent was "trash". Sherman was ripped in the public and press for being a bad sportsman, unprofessional, classless and worse. Defenders of Sherman pointed out the fact that he grew up in the ghetto of Compton and went to Stanford (which I thought was irrelevant to criticism of his actions), that he was placed in the poor position of having to answer a reporter's question so close to the end of the game (which would hold weight except for the fact that other players have been in similar situations without succumbing to Sherman's actions), and that some of the criticism had racist overtones (which I agree, but that doesn't invalidate the legitimacy of the overall critique). I wasn't a big fan of what he did, but reflecting on his actions did make me cognizant of how tightly all of us can hold onto our own giftedness, and how this leads to how we subconsciously elevate ourselves above others (most of us, thankfully, don't have microphone which reveals our own hearts' pride and arrogance). This, of course, isn't ultimately going to end well, because at some point, Richard Sherman will no longer be at the top of his game and he'll be humbled.

These super-talented individuals also face remarkable challenges. Along with their gifts, they also bear the weight of mammoth expectations, and the struggle of how they cut through all of the static and voices around what defines success in their lives. So as I look at these Olympians, the vast majority of whom will turn from Sochi empty-handed, I think about my own life. Insomuch I put part of my identity in my career, what happens when I flame out and am unable to provide for my family? Or as I look at Richard Sherman, do I look upon my own successes humbly or do I view these as ammunition to feed an insecure ego?