To find the magic around us, we often have to challenge our preconceptions and look below the surface. The Olympics and a conversation I had about them reminded me of that recently.
“Table tennis? You’re really watching table tennis?” I asked my son last weekend when I found him with remote in hand, glued to the screen of the TV. “Why would you watch that?” In my cynical eyes, I saw a simple game that you might play in your grandparents’ basement, not a serious sport worthy of the Olympics.
“Because it’s a teenage kid who has worked his tail off to compete at the highest level,” he told me. “I can identify with it.” Yep, another humbling moment for Dad. Just when I think I’m starting to figure things out, I’m reminded that I have a lot to learn.
The Olympics is not about spectator entertainment, it’s about the passion and dedication of the athletes who are competing. It’s about their four-year journey and the sacrifices they make. It’s about nurturing a dream while toiling in relative obscurity. It’s about the power of the human spirit.
For the most part, Olympic athletes are not household names. Even those who succeed enjoy a relatively short time in the limelight. Very few make even an acceptable income from their efforts. In fact, they often delay their career and family goals while they pursue their dreams. Many aspiring Olympic athletes, despite their dedication and sacrifice, won’t even qualify for the competition, forcing them to decide if they can spend another four years in preparation. We don’t see any of that when we scoff at a game of table tennis.
We don’t see the ten years that Kanak Jha, the 16-year-old table tennis phenom, spent in preparation for the Olympic stage. Last year, while most of his contemporaries were headed to high school, Jha traveled from his California home to Sweden to train with the world’s best table tennis players, splitting time between training and taking online high school classes. He sacrificed a normal high school experience to pursue his dreams.
While I learned that, yes, it is possible to make a nice living playing table tennis, even most Olympic-level table tennis players won’t get there. Like many athletes, that doesn’t keep them from trying.
There is a 20-year-old woman in my neighborhood who has been religiously training to be an Olympic weight-lifter for the past few years. Like Jha, she splits her time between academics and training, making sacrifices that few are aware of and even fewer are capable of. Again, it’s not money or fame that drives her. She is driven by a desire to be the very best at what she loves to do.
Imagine if we could apply passion like that to our professional lives – if we could sacrifice comfort and convenience for multiple years in a quest to be the very best at what we do.
I’m reminded of the 10,000 hour rule which I first encountered when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The theory of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” to become world class at something, and it’s applicable to many areas. For example, the average professional works 50 40-hour weeks or 2000 hours per year. At this pace, it takes them five years to become world-class at their profession. Of course, they can shorten this by working more hours, like a 50 hour-per-week pace for 51 weeks. In that case, they can achieve world-class status in one less year. Coincidentally, it’s four years between Olympics.
While might not ever be Olympic athletes, we can certainly learn something from their dedication and perseverance, and through that, an appreciation for what they do – even table tennis.