I always appreciate my friend Mikke for his humor, fantasy football banter, and his sense of adventure. But way more than that, I appreciate him because he is a very wise man who has listened and helped me to be my best on numerous occasions. He now serves as an executive coach, and he has been kind enough to share the daily affirmations and truths that he sends to each of his clients with me. One of them from last week truly struck a chord.
The affirmation was inspired by the recently completed US Open Tennis Championships, home to a large plaque featuring a famous quote from Billie Jean King: “Pressure is a Privilege.” What a statement. I should have heard it before. Billie Jean King wrote a book with that title back in 2008, and the plaque has been at the US Open since 2020. But I had not heard it. Until now.
I love it.
The pressure of fighting for every point, alone on the court in front of 24,000 fans, must be immense. I will never know that kind of athletic pressure, unless my pickleball game takes 32 giant leaps and bounds forward. But what Ms. King is urging these competitors to have is perspective – to recognize that by doing all of the work that it takes to get to this point, and by overcoming all of the obstacles it takes to get to the highest level, these athletes have a privilege that very few in the world get to experience – the chance to compete against the very best. I believe she wants all of us to embrace that same mindset. If we feel a sense of privilege and fortune when we face our own challenges, it frees us to let go of the pressure and just do our absolute best to succeed.
King’s quote applies so well to leaders and to all of us who face pressure during the course of our careers and lives. Let’s be clear – the amount of pressure in my life has diminished by approximately 96.8% since I retired. It feels healthy and good. But for nearly 40 years, I experienced a wide range of pressure and stress. Early in my teaching career, Sunday nights were rough. I acutely felt the pressure of making the week’s lesson plans, believing that if my lessons were not good enough, I might not make it as a teacher. If I hadn’t made it, my life would have been so very different, but the pressure I put on myself made me a better teacher and made a difference for my students. That pressure gave me the opportunity to develop into the teacher I needed to be. Many, many times, I lived through the pressures of making big decisions as a principal and as a superintendent. Sometimes the pressure stemmed from a school crisis, and sometimes it came from people who publicly stated they wanted me to lose my job. I wish I had known Billie Jean King’s quote during those times. I did feel the sentiment, but I did not have her words to express it.
My mentality during those difficult times was to work with the really smart and talented people around me, and simply make the best decisions we could. If those decisions were not good enough, and I was fired as a result, I believed in myself enough that I knew I would be able to get another job. I felt honored and privileged to be in a position of leadership. After overcoming the initial blows of the crisis, I was always able to work with my team, make a plan, and execute it. We all think we have plans, but a new crisis can challenge everything. Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It sounds odd, but I believe it was a privilege to recover from those punches, then develop and execute new plans and strategies.
But let me be completely honest. In many high pressure situations, my brain quickly realized that the pressure is a privilege mentality was the right way to go. I knew that thinking that way means your brain can fully focus on the actual problem, instead of focusing on how the pressure makes you feel. But all too often, my stomach, at least at first, refused to listen to my brain. And boy did I feel that pressure. Tommy Lasorda said, “When you start thinking of pressure, it’s because you’ve started thinking of failure.” My stomach would ignore my head, think of failure, feel that pressure, and push the misery of that pressure throughout my body.
I could overcome it, but it took my brain lecturing to my stomach during sleepless nights and sometimes over the course of several days. It took friends and colleagues talking me through issues, reinforcing what my brain already knew. As I gained the wisdom that comes with age and experience, I got better at that. But even in my sixties, I still have to fight it and actively remind myself. Sometimes, I write these posts to remind myself of what I already know. Because even though I know it, writing it down gives me that Mennen Skin Bracer slap in the face that I sometimes need.
Pressure makes us better. It was Kobe Bryant who said, “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” When pressure was highest, Kobe wanted the ball. He wanted the opportunity to rise.
My golf buddies who read this post (yes, a few of them can read) are going to watch me standing over a three-foot putt that I should be able to make. But that short little putt will have pressure on it. If I make it, I may win a whopping $5, $10, or even $20. I can hear them now, “What a privilege this is for you, Mike.” It’s funny how stupid stuff like that can actually feel like pressure. We’ll see if I can channel my inner Billie Jean King and Kobe Bryant on not just that three-foot putt, but on the real challenges that I will face as life goes on.
For all of you who are working to do your best, and for those of you in leadership positions doing the same, I thank you. Thanks for your extraordinary efforts to do your job well. I hope you feel that it is a privilege to do the work you do, especially when the going gets tough.
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Post #91 on www.drmdmatthews.com
(Note: I had to trim quite a bit from my original draft to get to this still-too-long published version. If you want to see the trimmings from the cutting floor, and some of my thoughts behind it, click here.)