Included among this years’s 100 Most Influential People according to Time Magazine is a Serbian tennis player named Novak Djokovic. Djokovic started the 2011 season by winning 41 matches in a row. Since then he’s taken home the trophy from 4 of the last 5 grand slam tournaments and earned the #1 ranking in the world.
Impressive? You bet. But that’s not why he made the list.
Instead he made the list because, as they put it, for the four years prior to all of this, “he was the sport’s top doormat. First Roger Federer and then Rafa Nadal would regularly wipe their feet on him en route to major titles; nine times they stomped him in Grand Slam events.”
Since 2007 Djokovic was the clear #3 player in the world, but few imagined him rising any higher. Watching him, you’d think, “He’s good. It’s a shame he’s peaking at the same time as Federer and Nadal.” Folks would debate which of those two would go down as the greatest of all time, and there was no sign that Djokovic would ever be able to match Federer’s mental toughness or Nadal’s physical toughness, much less both.
Imagine how frustrating it would be to lose to those guys over and over. Imagine how naturally cynicism could creep in. And imagine how easy it would be to settle – after all, being #3 in the world is still a pretty sweet living.
But Djokovic never resigned to his fate. Instead he had a sense of humor about it. He kept training, kept improving, kept fiddling with his technique, his diet, his fitness. And now it’s Federer and Nadal that have to figure out how to improve.
There’s a great lesson in this for those among us who struggle with perfectionism or worry how others will perceive us:
How do you come to be really good at something?
By allowing yourself to be not good at it for a long time.
For a personal example, preaching is something I’m enjoying a lot right now and seeing a lot of fruit from. I’m not the Djokovic of preaching, but I’m miles from where I started. Why? Lots of practice. Almost every Sunday for the last seven and half years. Whether I felt like it or not. In other words, how did I become a good preacher? By being a not-so-great-preacher for years.
My real point is this – I’m not sure there’s any other way. It’s trial and error. And I think that’s likely true about a lot of meaningful vocations, habits, and pursuits. Ask anyone who’s learned to dance or play an instrument or lead an organization.
And it makes me rethink some of the spiritual advice I might otherwise dish out to folks who say they’re no good at prayer, or Bible-reading, or generosity, or hospitality, or slowing down for a day of Sabbath.
Perhaps, instead of saying, “I’m sure you’re better than you think,” or “We have an upcoming class you may find helpful,” what I should say is:
“I’m sure that’s true. And it’s likely to be true for a while. A few times in your life you may stumble across something for which you’re just preternaturally gifted, but most of the important things in life are learned slowly and awkwardly in fits and starts. What would help you feel better about not being better for a while?”
Because if it’s true that the only way to get good is to experiment, risk, and fail (i.e. to be not good en route), then that’s the question, “Are we okay with not being okay for a while?”
Often we’re not. We’re afraid of embarrassing ourselves, we grow impatient, or we just resign to how things are. Djokovic, however, is another story, and here’s hoping that in that regard he is “most influential” indeed.