It was the first day of tennis lessons, and I had shown up ready to dominate. I had read a bunch of articles on what to expect, bought a book on tennis, and learned about the tennis legends. I had a brand new Prince racket that was newly strung with a clear letter “P” inked on it, and I wore just-purchased tennis whites: a polo, shorts, socks, and shoes, all Nike of course, because my favorite player at the time, the great Pete Sampras, wore Nike, and I was going to be great too.
So I thought.
After a few minutes into the lesson, the trainer, remarked, “Ang pogi mo pero hindi ka naman marunong. Sayang lang gamit mo. Gumaling ka muna.” (You look good but you don’t know how to play. Your gear is wasted. Get good first.)
He than asked the ball boy to get his racket, an old, heavy-looking, scratched piece of metal, and told him to get ready on the baseline. He hit a ball to him and they proceeded to have a short rally, after which, the coach looked at me and said, ” Yan ang importante. Hindi yung porma, pero yung nababalik ang bola.” (That’s what’s important. Not how you look but that you can return the ball.)
I wore a t-shirt to my next lesson. (Maybe this is why I prefer black t-shirts so much.)
I never became a great tennis player, but improved, enough to be more than the poser I was on that first day, enough to benefit from a good workout, and, more importantly, enough to actually enjoy the game.
That was a humbling moment for me, one of many humbling moments I am now incredibly grateful for. A humbling moment isn’t simply an embarrassing experience. It is a time of honest realization, of personal paradox. It is a time when we realize that we’re not as great as we think, that we should be more, that we can be more. Embarrassing moments, times of failure, periods of difficulty, are life crossroads where we must choose whether we allow the moment to make us more smug, more arrogant, more defeated, more discouraged, or more teachable. When the coach made that true but offensive comment, I could have said one of the common things a lot of people reply with today:
Don’t judge me. You don’t understand me. I’m better at you in other things. No one’s perfect. You’re bad at other things. I’m not taking this from you because you’re harsh. Can’t you see I’m trying my best? You should be more encouraging. Were you this good when you just started? Do you treat all your students this way? Who do you think you are? What have you accomplished?
I can go on…
The problem with all these statements is simply this: None of them would have made me better. None of them would have made me a better tennis player. None of them would have allowed me to enjoy the game.
The only useful thing these replies would have been for, was to couch a fragile ego, to help me retain some pride after being called out.
So I had a choice then, like I do every time I’m faced with limitation: Do I choose the lesson? Do I choose wisdom? Or do I choose defense? Do I choose growth? Or do I choose ego? Do I choose a chance to mature? Or do I choose stubbornness and bitterness? I could have chosen to be proud and miss the lesson. I’m glad I chose to be taught, because I enjoy playing tennis a lot. I wish I had time to start playing again.
A few weeks ago I bumped into an old friend I used to play tennis with, Chase, and we laughed about how we used to escape to play, of how I broke the tennis arcade machine after punching it, how I ended up going out with a beautiful friend of his after the one and only time I ever beat him, and how he invited me to church, only to realize my dad was the pastor (which shocked him so much because of my temper). In the same week I got a message from another friend, Gino, who was, and is, an incredible tennis player. That guy broke a lot of strings. Both of these guys kicked my ass in tennis. They could beat me with hands tied behind their backs. I really was never in their level. But to have played with them, to be their friend many years later, is a benefit I still enjoy today because I didn’t let a harsh and embarrassing correction determine my teachability. The benefits have gone beyond tennis and have been sustained through the years.
I think a lot of people need to wake up to this reality:
WE ARE NOT GREAT…
BUT WE CAN BE.
IF we get off our high horse, if we wipe the smug look off our faces, if we sacrifice our pride and say to a proven expert, “You’re better at this than me. Teach me. Show me. Tell me what to do. Don’t give up on me. I’ll give this everything I’ve got.”
IF we stop focusing on how we appear, how we look to others, what crowds think, and focus instead on getting really good at whatever our responsibility is.
AND IF we don’t? If we let our ego, our sensitivity, and our misguided entitlements determine our teachability, then we better be prepared to be pushed to the sidelines by those hungrier, with their worn caps, open-toed sneakers, and bacon collared shirts, by those willing to run harder and farther, those willing to take criticism and be powered by it, with their borrowed rackets, and mismatching socks, those willing to blister, willing to dive, willing to fight, willing to dig deep, willing to bleed, so we can watch as they become that great person we told ourselves we were, but know deep down we aren’t, and never will truly be.