Remembering Arthur Ashe

There are a few classic ALearningaDay stories that I share every 1-2 years as part of my attempts to internalize them. One of these is from tennis legend Arthur Ashe – the only black man to ever win the Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open.

He contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion he received when he was in surgery and once received a letter from a fan asking why, of all people, was he chosen to have AIDS?

To which, he replied – “The world over – 50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5,000,000 learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5,000 reach the grand slams, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 make the semi finals and 2 make the finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked god “Why me?”

Arthur Ashe taught us that if we’re not asking “why me” when things are going well, it isn’t fair to ask “why me” when things are not.

One of the most profound reminders I’ve gotten to keep perspective and to keep plugging away..

Counter productive behavior and perspective

Most infants hate changing clothes. So, they generally cry, kick, and scream when it happens. That is, of course, completely counter productive. It only lengthens the process and makes it worse.

I found myself amused when I observed this counter productive behavior the other day until I realized that we aren’t all that different as adults. We often do our equivalent of crying, kicking, and screaming when we deal with inevitable change, have an unexpected difficult conversation, or worry about something we don’t control.

That’s why taking the time to develop the sort of perspective that leads to equanimity can be very powerful. The sooner we can eliminate the counter productive behavior, the more productive we can be.

And, a great way to develop that sort of perspective is to spend more time with folks who have that perspective.

Uncertainty on Continuations

Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, authors one of my favorite blogs – Continuations. Yesterday’s post was about a new series on uncertainty –

I intend to write a bit about just how much of our lives is impacted by uncertainty (hint: all of it) despite us largely not acknowledging this reality. Then I plan to look at examples that illustrate how poor our intuitions are when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. With that in place, I will share the answers I have arrived at for myself for how to live with uncertainty.

He goes on to share three examples from his own life that involved major shifts that were far from certain.

I am excited about this series because a version of one of these stories inspired a classic ALearningaDay lesson – “You never know if a good day is a good day.” It has been five or six years since I first heard that idea from Albert and it is still one of those ideas that I think about every few weeks and write about every few months. For someone who struggled to learn how to keep perspective, that story was a game changer.

Repetition is a key part of learning. And, I love thinking about the topics I’m repeatedly re-framing and writing about – those lessons are the ones I clearly want to learn. At some point in the future, I hope to take on a project where I share some of the core principles I end up writing about every day.

One thing is for certain – when I do, the principle inspired by Albert’s story on the inherent uncertainty of our lives that reminds us of keeping things in perspective and plugging away will be key among them.

An undercurrent of perspective

Of late, I’ve been thinking of two streams at work and in life. The stream at the top is the one that dictates our response to the flow of the day-to-day. It deals with our plans for the future, the crisis of the moment, and the many other highs and lows that we deal with in our journey.

Underneath that stream is another which isn’t easily touched – but is one we can choose to access. It flows thanks to the undercurrent of perspective. Reaching for this undercurrent means reminding ourselves that we’re not here for too long and that nothing we do will last for long.

This undercurrent can be mistaken for a morbid thought that needs to be shushed away. But, it isn’t. Instead, in reminding us of the end game, it teaches us to focus on the little that actually matters. Our petty competitions, factions, politics, and rivalries are all going to count for nothing.

It reminds us that our life might be shorter than we think. So, we’d be better served dealing with today’s issues with a smile (they will pass). And, as we’re all fighting the good fight, we could all be kinder to ourselves and each other.

Stepping out of the frame

Author Salman Rushdie once quipped – “The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.”

Our ability to step out of ourselves and observe ourselves from the wall or ceiling is core to our ability to be human. That ability to see ourselves from another point of view gives us instant perspective and the ability to separate stimulus from response.

The question, then, is how often do we step out of the frame in the course of a day or week? How often do we trigger reflection and perspective? For most of us, sleep, meditation, a walk in the outdoors, writing in a journal, taking deep breaths, running, among others, are ways to do so.

Doing most or all of these well over the course of a day aren’t an optional add on at the end of a work day. They result in step changes in productivity as perspective inspires a focus on what actually matters.

And, perhaps more important for our life and relationships, they enable us to be more in touch with our humanity.

We only deserve a styrofoam cup

As a response to a post on power recently, Ashay shared the following story from Simon Sinek. It is one I’ve thought about it a few times since and I thought I’d share.


I heard a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who gave a speech at a large conference. He took his place on the stage and began talking, sharing his prepared remarks with the audience. He paused to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d brought on stage with him. He took another sip, looked down at the cup and smiled.

“You know,” he said, interrupting his own speech, “I spoke here last year. I presented at this same conference on this same stage. But last year, I was still an Under Secretary,” he said.

“I flew here in business class and when I landed, there was someone waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel. Upon arriving at my hotel,” he continued, “there was someone else waiting for me. They had already checked me into the hotel, so they handed me my key and escorted me up to my room. The next morning, when I came down, again there was someone waiting for me in the lobby to drive me to this same venue that we are in today. I was taken through a back entrance, shown to the greenroom and handed a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

“But this year, as I stand here to speak to you, I am no longer the Under Secretary,” he continued. “I flew here coach class and when I arrived at the airport yesterday there was no one there to meet me. I took a taxi to the hotel, and when I got there, I checked myself in and went by myself to my room. This morning, I came down to the lobby and caught another taxi to come here. I came in the front door and found my way backstage. Once there, I asked one of the techs if there was any coffee. He pointed to a coffee machine on a table against the wall. So I walked over and poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup,” he said as he raised the cup to show the audience.

“It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year . . . it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.”

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered.

“All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.”

How they got to school

We were on day 5 of a trek in the Himalayas staying in a picturesque valley. The place had a few small rooms with beds and no running water or electricity. As we got to know the family that owned the place, we learnt that the kids needed to walk 14 kilometers through difficult mountain terrain every day to go to school and back.

To put that in perspective, 14 kilometers is what most trekking groups manage in a day of trekking. Such commutes are the norm in Himalayas and many remote places around the world where kids risk their lives every day to go to school.

I think of this from time to time as I remind myself of the difference between challenging, difficult, and hard. We are challenged by small problems often – these keep life interesting. Occasionally, we face difficulties borne out of the effect day-to-day living has on us. Life is difficult and it only ceases to be so once we accept that.

But, if you are reading this, it is likely that life is never hard. Hard is struggling for the basics, toiling in difficult conditions, and hoping to get some food to fill your stomach that day.

Our lives are regularly challenging, occasionally difficult, and never hard. And, understanding that helps keep perspective as we journey from one day to the next.