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Why Your Hard Work Doesn't Pay Off
Or "Why I Never Played In the NFL".
When I was 12, football was my favorite thing in the world.
I knew all of the NFL teams and every single relevant player, and I was obsessed with the strategy of the game. I wrote playbooks in my spare time, studied games on TV, and played pickup games with my friends every chance I got.
I loved football, and I desperately wanted to be good at it. In particular, I was obsessed with the idea of being a star quarterback.
However, there were a few obstacles holding me back.
I loved football, but the biggest problem was that I wasn’t very good at it.
I also wasn’t very big, very strong, very fast, or in any kind of shape — unless you classify “kind of chunky” as a shape. There weren’t many kids who loved football more than me, but there were plenty of kids who were better at it than me.
I had a lot of heart, but really not much else.
However, being bad at football taught me a lot about the laws and lies behind becoming successful.
I’m just afraid that I won’t be able to tell you without hurting your feelings.
The day I realized I hated football.
The day that I realized that football wasn’t for me was in the 7th grade. It was the second to last game of my pee-wee football career.
The final minutes in the 4th quarter started to wane down, and I still hadn’t set foot on the field once. My mind raced.
“They aren’t really going to forget about me, right?”
At the bare minimum, I figured that every kid would get to play at least one down of every game. I cherished the 1 or 2 downs that I got to play.
But that day, my coach forgot to put me in the game, and with a minute left in the 4th quarter, I plopped myself down on the bench and cried.
Technically, on my team, you weren’t allowed to sit on the bench during the game. You had to “always be ready” and “support your teammates”.
But I was sick of “always being ready”. My muscles were stiff, tears were streaming down my face, and I felt invisible in my oversized helmet and my giant shoulder pads.
I don’t remember if we won or lost the game, but that day was when I decided I’d had enough of playing football.
Hard work doesn’t pay off.
I loved football — a lot.
Football was the first sport I ever really tried to work hard at.
I showed up early to practice. I worked with my coach to learn how to throw the ball. I studied the playbook, and then I memorized it.
When we did wind sprints at the end of practice, I sprinted so damn hard that the buckles on my helmet would unbuckle. They’d pop off and I’d keep sprinting, hoping that the coach would notice my effort and finally put me in a game.
But that didn’t happen.
No matter how hard I worked, I was never going to get meaningful playing time on my little pee-wee football team.
I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t fast enough, and my dad didn’t coach the team. There was absolutely no reason to put me on the field except for maybe kindness, but kindness doesn't win football games.
The odds were stacked against my football dream from the beginning.
I didn’t have the natural attributes to play football, I didn’t have the right connections to play football, and because I didn’t get to play in the games, I couldn’t get better.
Maybe the fact that I’m a professional athlete now while every single kid on my pee-wee football team is completely retired from sports altogether is my own little “f*ck you” to pee-wee football, but although I’m telling it to you, this article isn’t about my cute little redemption story.
I’m not here to inspire you to slay your demons.
I’m here to tell you to choose the right goals.
I’m here to help you become an outlier yourself in whatever you do.
“You can do anything you put your mind to.”
My parents and my teachers (and even my football coaches) taught me that with hard work, I could accomplish anything.
The reality is grimmer.
But what else were the adults supposed to tell me? I was 12 and I wanted to be Peyton Manning. I even had a freakin’ Peyton Manning action figure.
The idea that your actions don’t matter as much as you think is almost unbearable to accept.
That’s not entirely true either, but there is some truth there.
Let’s go back to my 12-year-old self for a minute.
If not football, maybe basketball?
After my football season which was filled with crying, sitting on a cold bench, and getting to play one drive as a quarterback in our last scrimmage game of the year, I was determined to become a better football player.
I was determined to be an athlete.
The next thing that I did was try out for my school’s basketball team. I thought maybe basketball would be my sport.
But it wasn’t.
The basketball players were the same people as the football players who played over me — they were all tall, athletic, fast, and most importantly, good at basketball.
I was none of those things. I didn’t make the first cut.
More crying ensued.
My mom is a saint.
Basketball sucked socially as well.
I got made fun of in the lay-up lines, I finished toward the back of the pack in the sprints, and the teasing made me feel silly to even be in the gym. I was beginning to resent every single sport that I tried.
Then one day, my mom suggested I try “wrestling”.
Immediately, I rejected the idea. Wrestling was “gay”. No one cool wrestled. Wasn’t it fake, anyway?
You’d have to kill me before you put me in one of those little onesies and made me tussle with another boy in front of people.
But then I found out that some football players would wrestle in the off-season to get better at football.
This changed things. I was slightly intrigued. I wanted to get good at football.
I decided to give wrestling a shot.
Everything I’m not made me everything I am.
It would be cool if this was part of the story where I became a great wrestler, won state titles, got a scholarship, and told all my football coaches to f*ck off while I wrestled my way to greatness.
But that’s not what happened.
Wrestling was hard. It took me 4 years of being terrible at it to really start to learn, and even then, I was never a “great” wrestler.
I made the varsity team, but I never made it to States. I had some offers to wrestle at some D3 colleges, but that was mostly because they needed to fill rosters.
I became good, but not very good. I had a commendable, but not remarkable wrestling career.
Then, almost randomly, I started practicing “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” a few months after I stopped wrestling, and something strange happened.
For the first time in my whole life, I kind of became “an outlier”.
When I started Jiu-Jitsu, I suddenly had all the athletic privileges.
I wasn’t naturally amazing at Jiu-Jitsu, but I was naturally pretty good.
I was tough in the training room (thanks to wrestling), I knew how to move my body pretty well (again, wrestling), and I was good at learning competition strategies (likely thanks to years of watching and studying sports).
Most people in Jiu-Jitsu spend the early parts of their careers learning how to move their bodies, whereas I started Jiu-Jitsu with essentially years of experience over my competition.
This created a snowball effect that I’d never experienced before.
I won some tournaments, I’ve become a pro-competitor, and now, being a pro gives me the luxury to train as much as I possibly can, further accelerating my progress.
I started Jiu-Jitsu with the privilege of athletic experience, ability, and the huge privilege of having parents who didn’t mind if their son decided to spend most of his time learning how to choke people in a gym as long as he didn’t drop out of school.
And now I get to reap the rewards.
It almost makes crying on the bench in football, getting bullied in basketball, and spending years being terrible at wrestling all worth it.
My success and opportunities right now are not only about what I do on a daily basis, they’re really about where I’ve come from. People forget this, and that’s why they struggle.
The ideas illustrated above are not just true in sports, but considering that my entire life experience is as an athlete, I found this to be the best way to explain the idea of “the Matthew effect”.
The rich get richer and the poor are kind of f*cked from the start. In some aspects of life, every one of us is dealt a losing hand.
This idea also appears to be true in economics, education, and even social relationships.
Hard work is not “an option”, it’s a requirement for any sort of success. However, there’s more to success than just hard work.
To truly be an outlier, you need to be talented, gritty, and hard-working, and you need to come from and live in an environment that allows you to cultivate the skills needed to succeed.
This doesn’t mean you’re good or that your work doesn’t matter, it just means there is more to success than showing.
The real key to becoming the best is finding activities that you both love and have the ability to stand out in. Opportunity plus effort plus consistency equals success.
If you come from a family of 5-foot-nothing ice cream truck owners, it’s going to be extremely tough to become an NBA superstar. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t become great at something else, like writing or wrestling.
“Growing up” is really just learning to find strength in accepting the death of some of your childhood dreams.
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