Bill Bradley was born with unexceptional athletic ability and intelligence. But, he went on to become the greatest basketball star in Ivy League history when he played at Princeton University; a Rhodes Scholar; a starter on two New York Knicks championship teams; and then a heralded senator from New Jersey.
How did Bradley do this? Bradley’s father often told him that when he was not working for his goal, someone else was. This compelled Bradley to shoot at his outdoor basketball court well into cold Kansas nights. It made him study to keep up with his more naturally academically gifted Princeton peers. It pushed him to work as hard as possible to stay in the NBA despite giving up speed, strength, and athletic ability to most all his opponents.
Years later, I had the good fortune of meeting now-Senator Bradley. He was running for President was giving a talk at our law firm’s national retreat in New Orleans. I saw him arrive. He ate dinner with our managing partner and a few others and then gave his speech. Somehow, he was able to tailor his comments to our firm. He mentioned a variety of people in the organization, pointed out areas that were important to the firm, and even made jokes that only people in the firm would understand. It was beyond impressive.
Think about this in relation to your children. Many kids don’t realize that some part of achievement is a zero-sum game. Only some will be admitted to Princeton; fewer will earn Rhodes Scholarships, play professional basketball, and become US Senators.
Yet, many teens are in a small-town Connecticut suburban bubble. They compare their work ethic within their immediate friend group and perhaps the broader student body in their school. They often don’t understand that others around the world are working for what end up being the same zero-sum goals.
In particular, I have noticed that many families on the Connecticut shoreline came from Mayflower lineage. The family lives in a beautiful house in Madison, or Guilford or Old Lyme or East Lyme somewhere along the gorgeous Connecticut coast. Someone in the family tree earned the money to build up the family fortune. But, the Connecticut high school student was just “born into it”. He didn’t see the work ethic that created the nice life he now enjoys.
When working with students who are easy-going and not particularly ambitious, this is not necessarily a problem. Their work effort matches their goals. But, it is a big problem when working with students who have ambitions that go far beyond their work ethic. While Bradley’s path is truly exceptional, teaching your children his lesson as soon as possible will set them up for their own chance at greatness.