Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters will be one of the great stories of 2019. The fallen star, after years of physical challenges and having been seemingly surpassed by new golfing talent, wins it all in the cathedral-like setting of Augusta National Golf Course. You can see the rich metaphors and storylines available to sportswriters.
And that might be a big reason why sports are so popular in our media culture. They are visual metaphors shown in high definition, playing out gripping personal challenges, the despair of loss, the elation of victory, the value of teamwork, and always the pursuit of improvement. These are many of the same emotions and efforts we ourselves experience in our cubicles and kitchens.
I want to touch upon two elements of Tiger’s win, and perhaps you can use these as ways to reframe your own challenges as well as the challenges of those around you.
Tiger, famously, has had horrible back problems. Not just “my back is sore” problems, but “I need help walking” problems. It’s hard to imagine how someone plays golf after years of pain, much less plays at a high level. I was watching his press conference after his victory and a journalist asked him what his message would be to others experiencing challenges. His answer was “never give up.”
If we strip back the surface layer of his short response, we might consider a few deeper elements.
First, Tiger viewed his goal of returning to competitiveness as worthy. Worthy of pain and recuperation. Worthy of stretching and lifting weights outside of the limelight. I have seen some people “never give up” as they chase an unworthy – or unattainable – objective. These people might view themselves as paragons of perseverance, but if their efforts are directed toward the wrong goal, or they’re obstinate in not adjusting or learning, then what they might think of as “perseverance” might in fact be “delusion.”
It would be delusional for me to “never give up” in my pursuit to win the green jacket, but it was perseverance that enabled Tiger to do it.
Secondly, note that Tiger is a wealthy guy. He is surrounded by the sort of comfort and resources that few of us could imagine. He could have taken the easier path: manage his business interests, spend time with his foundation, and chill out on his yacht. The fact that he pursued discomfort and signed up for a long road back – filled with missed cuts, looks of condolences, and self-doubt – tells us a lot about his competitiveness.
The “U-Curve” of Character Development
I don’t know where Tiger is at in his personal life and don’t know if he’s a person of deep character. But I’m willing to bet he has greater wisdom and character than he did several years ago.
Tiger’s personal and marital transgressions were well documented in the extreme. They were splashed across every publication imaginable. He even held a live television appearance (with his mother in the front row) apologizing for his behavior. Can you imagine the embarrassment?
I don’t say this to suggest I was sympathetic to him – he made his bed and was forced to lie in it. But it had to have been deeply humiliating.
Fast forward to 2019, and as I looked at him celebrating on the 18th green I thought of an observation David Brooks made in his outstanding book The Road to Character (a book I’ve included on my Great Books List). In it, Brooks observes how many people of great character – people like George C. Marshall, Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dwight Eisenhower and others – were “formed” by sin, failure, weakness and trial.
In his autobiography, Saint Augustine lamented the sexual transgressions from his youth as well as effectively ditching his mother by hopping a boat to another continent (she followed him).
The path toward great character, Brooks observes, is less of a straight line ascending toward greatness and more of a “U” shaped curve:
“But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.
The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. The everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland.”
As I said, I don’t know where Tiger is in his life, but I hope he’s in a good place, and I’m certain he’s stronger than he was when he was a young phenom in a swirling vortex of riches and fame.
It’s one of the realities of life. We have to stumble before we walk. By failing and recovering, we develop strength as well as empathy for those who are in their own low place.
When it comes to the unending development of character, I pass along Tiger’s wisdom:”never give up.”