“I admire people who keep their accolades to themselves, compared to those who obnoxiously display them for public admiration.”
-Pat Tilman, NFL Pro and War Veteran
Today, there is such an indiscrete thirst that our society shares of having to boast personal glory through email blasts and social media. I do my best to mirror Tilman’s audage regarding self promotion. I stumbled upon his words and became enthralled with how his rare selfless character was embodied.
Pat grew up a local Bay Area “celebrity” and eventual national name stake in the NFL. A childhood friend describes Tilman… “Patsy was never comfortable with the idolization that his amazing talents brought him. He was always the first to deflect any glorification directly back to those that offered it to him. If somebody idolized him, he’d brush it off, searching for something to reciprocate.”
Additionally, Pat Tilman was a man who became known for defending those considered too weak to stand up for themselves. He eventually walked away from football to join the war against terror as an Army Ranger. Tilman left a $10 million contract to place himself deep into the obscurity of war. Why?... Because he wanted to help.
“As a champion, my greatest memory was giving my trophy to a kid in the crowd.”
-Tom Curren, World Surfing Champion
Tommy Curren will go down as one of the greatest champions in the history of surfing. In addition to his unmatched talent on the water, Curren was also known for being shy, stoic and uncomfortable with his iconic praise. In a 1989 interview, he was asked why he had created such an image in a sport where past champions were bold and ego driven. Curren answered, “I’m not quiet in order to orchestrate this mysterious and illusive image. I don’t say much because, well, I don’t have that much to say.”
The reporter pushed back, saying if he never boasts about his accomplishments, then nobody will ever know about them, to which Tom replied: “Yeah, but I’ll know. To me, that’s enough.” He continues, “When I started getting good results as a teen, I started to become recognized and I never enjoyed it. I grew up with a kid who was so competitive that it made him unlikable. When he lost, he turned into this horrible, dark person. I promised myself that, no matter how far my surfing took me, I’d never be like that.”
The takeaway from the Tilman and Curren stories is that accolades and recognition will naturally come to those who deserve them, not to those who force it. There are dangers with self promotion and a constant need to be in the limelight. The biggest? There is always someone better, and eventually that person eclipses even “the best”. This is not to say that we should not be proud of our accomplishments, but rather to suggest showing a little modesty by letting the focus shine on someone else. There is much to be learned about ourselves through the perspective of other people… all we need to do is let them talk first.
“My hero is an anonymous man who, during World War II, was responsible for saving hundreds of children from Nazi imprisonment camps. For 50 years, he never mentioned it because he didn’t want to exploit their suffering for attention. He was later given The Purple Heart.”
-Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist
Billy Mills was raised in poverty in the rugged countryside of Pineridge, South Dakota. Raised in the Native American Sioux Indian Tribe, Mills was constantly reminded to never grow resentful of his humble upbringing. Billy was taught to be confident, but never cocky.
A gifted long distance runner, he was a college All American and eventual gold medalist in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In college, Mills was know for slowing down toward the end of his cross country competitions if he knew he was going to win… something his coaches, fans and fellow competitors could never understand. Billy had always maintained that, “In any race, if I knew I had it, I would always slow down. I want to win, but I don’t want to humiliate.”
In interviews, he was always known for acknowledging how fast his competition was. Reporters were quick to say, “Yes, but you’re faster." Mills would fire back, “Yeah, but we’re not talking about me.” When he retired from competition, he began a successful career as a motivational speaker. A constant theme in his seminars that we should all learn from is to never let competition turn you into somebody you’re not.
Mills preaches, “As athletes and humans, yes, we are all competitive… on the track and in life. But competition can turn good people into villains. I was always trying to better my time from the previous race. If I ended up winning, that’s great… but if you’re in it just for the joy of beating people, then I don’t want to know you.”
Winning isn’t everything. Thank you, Mr. Mills.
I have been a lifeguard in San Diego for 12 years. Johnny Maher is my longtime friend and co-worker. He is also an accomplished professional surfer, big wave rider and rescue swimmer for The Professional Big Wave World Surfing Tour. Having performed in the water and on the job for quite some time, I am fairly confident in my ocean skills and capabilities. Johnny is hands down the most gifted waterman in the San Diego Lifeguard Service. Compare my ability to his, and you have David and Goliath. If you ever have the privilege of meeting Johnny though, you would never know any of this, because he would never tell you. He signifies leadership and modesty by consistently diverting glory to his coworkers. He has lead the charge in saving so many people during dangerous ocean rescues, only to give credit to the crew that is honored to be working with him.
I bring up Maher because I believe that everyone knows at least one Johnny. Someone who draws the line between cocky and confident…putting ego aside and allowing others to take center stage. I make it a point to soak up anything I can learn from people like Johnny. I have discovered that it is possible to turn other people’s glory into my inner satisfaction… that being around these people actually makes me a better person.
I’m talking about the man who catches the biggest bass by himself on a camping trip. The woman who breaks the world record on a solo workout, and keeps it to herself. The person who climbs the steepest mountain without a partner.
The drive for self satisfaction is far healthier than the need for peer acceptance. What we need is to make ourselves whole on the inside, rather than pleasing ourselves by the reaction of our peers on the outside.
As Tilman once said, “Only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life’s deepest joy: true fulfillment.”