Michael Phelps made history over the weekend. The 23-yr-old from Baltimore now has 8 gold medals from the Beijing Olympics. So is this guy a golden child, raised in an ideal life with every advantage coming his way? It doesn’t appear to be so. As a little boy Michael was diagnosed with ADHD. He started swimming at age 7 to have an outlet for his excess energy. When he was 9 his parents divorced. At 19 he was arrested for driving under the influence. He has “attended” college between 2004 and 2008 but doesn’t plan to graduate anytime soon. His friends call him “Gomer” because of his resemblance to the good-natured country boy played by Jim Nabors. He eats around 12,000 calories a day (about five times more than the average adult male) to keep up with his amazing level of activity. He’s already been making approximately $5 million per year in endorsements, and the 8 gold medals have earned him a $1 million bonus from his sponsor, Speedo.
So what are you doing with your “challenges?” Are you using them as an excuse to justify mediocrity? Or are you, like Michael, focusing your uniqueness in a positive direction. Do you have a diagnosed malady? Were your parents divorced or did you get into trouble in your teenage years? Maybe having “challenges” is a strong motivator for doing something extraordinary. And maybe having things too easy makes coasting too attractive. Remember the caterpillar’s transition to a butterfly. It’s the struggle that causes those beautiful wings to appear. Maybe your “disadvantages” are your opportunity to find a more authentic path to success.
It’s typically the challenges that help us find our true calling. Henry David Thoreau said: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.”
Frequently I see that those who have been given advantages early in life find themselves with a strong sense of being off track in their forties or fifties. I have a friend who, while a gifted singer and performer, has never developed these or any other talents as he is too busy protecting the money he inherited from his father. A current client was given the best education money could buy, including medical school, and now, at age fifty-two, realizes he has never pursued his real calling. The search for authentic work is a very personalized and internal one and can easily be derailed by too many advantages. The best medical, dental, or law school will never provide a fulfilling career path if that path is not a match with the unique gifts of the person involved. Just as you shouldn’t let a lack of money deter you from pursuing a great opportunity now, don’t let money or circumstances you already have keep you from moving toward your passion.
Incidentally, I have to also add that in addition to his goal-setting and amazing focus, Michael Phelps is described by the Baltimore Sun as “a man incredibly invested in the success of the people he cares about.” They go on to say he’s “unbelievably kind-hearted” with young children after practices and events. I suspect that even at age 23 he remembers the painful challenges of his own childhood.