The Case for Being Great at Something
Updated: Aug 23
When we encounter people who have devoted their lives to doing something great, we are reminded of what is inherently true for each of us – a strong desire to direct our own lives by doing something we love and that we’re really good at.
A record 72,039 fans attended the third round of the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, NY this past Friday. Almost all were there to be part of what turned out to be a historic evening – the final tennis match played by the all-time great Serena Williams, who lost in three sets to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic. My wife and I sat transfixed as we watched Serena attempt to battle back in the third set, postponing dinner so that we didn’t miss any part of it. At the same time, millions of people around the world were doing the same.
What compels us to watch greatness in action? Human beings are motivated at a deep level by being good at something. Self-determination theory asserts three fundamental needs that motivate us all – connection, autonomy, and, perhaps most importantly, competence. The author Daniel Pink popularized this in his best-selling book Drive, arguing that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three elements of true motivation. When we encounter people who have devoted their lives to doing something great, we are reminded of what is inherently true for each of us – a strong desire to direct our own lives towards something we love and that we’re really good at.
What has made Serena exceptional is that she has not just dedicated her life to being the best tennis player in the world for over two decades. She is also a loving and committed parent, spouse, and daughter and a formidable businesswoman. Serena’s example comes at an important time. We have been hearing a lot lately about the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” – doing the bare minimum at work without letting anyone know you are doing so. I understand and appreciate the impulse to not allow work to overwhelm one’s life. At the same time, there is something deeply disquieting about the notion of simply getting by.
I want to make the case for being great at whatever it is that you’re doing. Your particular occupation, vocation, or hobby doesn’t even need to be something you’re initially passionate about. In fact, it is the getting good at something that results in one finding their purpose, not the other way around. Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues: “Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.” In other words, it is craft that we must dedicate our lives to not career. Similarly, being great at something singular does not need to come at the expense of living a balanced, or better yet integrated, life. Rather, being great at something is an essential ingredient of a life well lived. Greatness in any one dimension of life permeates all others.
What we all witnessed on Friday was a woman boldly proclaiming her greatness. There was and is no quiet quitting in Serena. No doing the bare minimum. Just a loud and much-needed reminder to all of us of the value of being great at something.
I once had a dream of being an NFL kicker, having kicked a 37-yard field goal in a Pop Warner football game at age thirteen. So I found this New York Times Magazine essay, “How Justin Tucker Became the Greatest Kicker in NFL History,” fascinating.
This week I found myself struggling to find the next really good book to read. So I decided to re-read Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It’s excellent. And I’m hoping even better the second time around.
A quote by Albert Camus that I’ve revisited this week: “The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning.”