Think of someone who you admire for their professional skills.
It could be a sports star, a musician, your mom.
What makes them great?
The dominant narrative in sports is hard work.
I follow the NBA, and often hear the following about the game’s greatest players:
“He’s the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.”
“All things are possible if you put in the work.”
“When I was partying, he was playing basketball.”
The hard work, the will to win, the hustle, the grind – this is the key ingredient of greatness. Or is it? What about belief?
Have NBA stars “put in the work” since childhood because they love hard work, or because a coach held them to a higher standard? And after winning the MVP and the Championship, what keeps them working hard? “Loving the process” or responsibility to set an example?
In NBA Hall of Fame Ceremonies, the players often give heartfelt thank you’s to friends, parents, coaches:
“He gave me all the confidence in the world… he saw my potential before I did.”
“If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here.”
And 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant to his mom, “You’re the real MVP.”
I’ve been reflecting on this question: are we great because of our hard work? Or because others see us as great? Do we achieve because of our iron will to win? Or because others believed in us so much that we started believing in ourselves?
More specifically, how powerful are the stories that we hold others in? And that others hold us in?
Those stories could be:
Parent to child: “Son, I know you want to try the entrepreneurship thing, but it’s time to get a stable job.”
Friend to friend: “You’re an incredible writer – you were made to do this! I know finance is lucrative. But you should write.”
Judge to contestant: “We’re watching a phenomenon. We’re watching musical history. This guy right here is unbelievable… Wrap your head around being a huge star.”
And on and on. Stories that hold you above what you thought yourself capable; stories that trap you in identities that no longer serve you.
The 3 stories above are personal. Let me dive into them, from last to first.
“We’re watching a phenomenon. We’re watching musical history. This guy right here is unbelievable… Wrap your head around being a huge star.”
Two months ago I stumbled upon Alejandro Aranda’s American Idol Audition.
In walks an awkward 24 year old dishwasher who proceeds to blow the judges – and America – away.
Stevie Nicks, lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, gushed on her Instagram:
When he started to play the first chords ~ I started to cry~ I cried all through his guitar song and all through his piano song.
My prophecy~ He will play and sing across the great stages of the world. He will play with 60 piece orchestras and he will play alone. I felt, as did the judges, that I was suspended in some sort of magical grace that was just simply overwhelming. My tears did not stop until he stopped.
So, Alejandro, let me welcome you to the grand stage that will be your home for the rest of your extraordinary life
As a struggling artist, can you imagine hearing a music legend describe you this way? That must change how you see yourself.
Alejandro has dominated the competition, earning constant praise from the judges (Luke Bryant: “I am in the presence of greatness”) and getting triple and quadruple the YouTube views of other contestants.
Fans – including me – search for his music wherever we can find it. His Instagram exploded from 6,000 to over 600,000 followers.
Fans piece together that he’s made dozens of songs for the past 4 years, more than enough for a full album. But almost no one believed in him then.
He will likely win American Idol playing original songs – the same songs he has been playing in front of supermarkets and empty cafes for years.
American Idol – aside from being a huge money maker – is about holding up dishwashers in a new story in which they are stars. They hear it from the judges, famous singers, and on social media. In this new story, they sing and perform like idols.
What makes Alejandro’s story so compelling is that only a handful of people believed in him. And who can’t relate to that? It’s part of his massive appeal.
His biggest believer? Twin Shadow, the musician who encouraged him to put his music out in the world.
I kind of do see you as my hero in a sense of how much you’ve helped me out, from telling me to just make music and be myself. I was at the point of giving up trying to pursue music because I didn’t know where to go… from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Alejandro Aranda, American Idol Finalist
Maybe Twin Shadow and American Idol are the real heroes. If they had never held Alejandro in this story, he may have never given his musical gifts to the world. His songs now inspire millions.
“You’re an incredible writer – you were made to do this! I know finance is lucrative. But you should write.”
My friend John is one of the sharpest thinkers I have ever met, and when he writes, strangers swoon. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Princeton and won a full scholarship to study East Asian Studies at Harvard. He went on to build a successful career in finance, working for some of Asia’s top investment firms.
But I’ve always encouraged him to write. I believed that was his calling. His reason for being put on this earth.
So when he was teaching SAT prep in Los Angeles because he had to take care of his mom, I told him to write.
When he was making millions in Hong Kong working in finance, I told him to write.
When he quit, moved to Vietnam to write a novel, and hit wall after wall, I told him to keep writing.
He’s now CEO for some of Myanmar’s hottest startups, a sexy role that will set him up well for the future.
But deep down, I still want him to write. We haven’t talked much about his writing the past 3 years. There’s a time and invitation to discussing these things.
But I continue to hold him in this story. John needs me too, just as I need others to hold me in stories where I give my greatest gift.
“Son, I know you want to try the entrepreneurship thing, but it’s time to get a stable job.”
For years my parents have lectured me to get a job, and to treat my small business for what it is: a hobby.
I’ve always craved their approval. And doing what they told me made me a “good boy,” a tennis champion, a valedictorian, a Princeton grad. The next step was supposed to be a respected job, financial wealth, and family. Where did I fall off the track?
More than anything, I wish they could see me in a different story – that my personality and strengths are well suited to navigate the challenges of new ventures. I’ve struggled for this assurance, not only from them, but from myself… from my own “inner parent” that’s telling me I amount to nothing because I’ve never made a huge pile of money, because I don’t have a family.
They can only see one story for me. And that power is so strong that I almost feel like that’s the only option. Maybe this business building thing is a pipe dream.
Corporate friends also hold me in the same narrative: “you’re getting old dude…” “you better start looking for a job sooner rather than later…” “women are looking for stability…” all code words for: get back on track.
I’m not saying to ignore feedback, or that some stories we tell ourselves are fantasies. In fact, I think feedback is essential to navigate whether you are giving your best gift to the world. Feedback can uncover more accepted, profitable and quicker paths forward. I seek this honesty from my friends. Nevertheless, the key skill seems to be the intent of the person giving feedback. Do they have your best interest at heart?
Can’t you see? The stories you narrate of others are so powerful. Perhaps even more powerful than their hard work; in fact, they’re probably correlated. If you hold the belief that someone can be better, more kind, more patient, more loving, you provide a space for that change to happen. The same goes for truly believing in someone’s identity as an athlete, a writer, an entrepreneur.
Who is more important, the achiever or the believer?
How you see a person creates an invitation to be that way.
Charles Eisenstein, from Unlearning for Change Agents