“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” –Salvador Dali
“I go dreaming into the future, where I see nothing, nothing. I have no plans, no idea, no project, and, what is worse, no ambition. Something—the eternal ‘what’s the use?’—sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis.” –Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility On Tour
Last weekend I finished up my first (and probably last) season as a middle school volleyball coach. It was my daughter’s team. They were desperate for a coach so they could start the season, so I swallowed my insecurities about never having played organized volleyball in my life and jumped in to lead them. I had spent years as a professional tennis coach and worked with middle schoolers many times, so I wasn’t worried about dealing with the kids. But it’s a totally different sport, so I definitely went in feeling like a fish out of water. I discovered immediately, though, that I liked it. The old coach in me jumped right back into that zone, and I found myself quite invigorated by each practice and game. I was teaching and learning at the same time, a perfect recipe for me.
The one thing that struck me from the very first practice was the reminder of how painfully shy and awkward most kids—both girls and boys—are in middle school. It is like you can cut the insecurity in the room with a knife. I have always believed that if there is one thing I would like to be able to bottle and give to every child (and adult, really), it is self-belief. We miss out on so, so much simply because we lack the confidence to put ourselves out there and try something new or hard or both. We play small and stay in our shell, living life with our MUTE button pressed upon our souls. The missed opportunities pile on top of one another: deep conversations, social clubs or sports, new friendships, leadership roles, job applications or promotions, love interests, or just the last slice of pizza. Lack of self-belief leads to lack of luck and lack of the best, juiciest things in Life. It cascades. All the fun that goes un-had and all the magic that goes unclaimed. I find it deeply tragic.
In that first volleyball practice, I met a girl we will call Tamara, who seemed particularly afflicted with this crippling self-doubt. When it came time to work on serving, I went through all of the technical points of the overhand serve and then set the kids loose to try it for themselves. She cautiously approached me and, eyes cast down, asked if she could just serve underhand. I explained to her that one of the goals at this age is to serve overhand instead of the underhanded variety that kids learn in elementary school, so we were all going to give it a shot. It was built into the rules of our league that kids should try the overhand serve on their first attempt, and if they couldn’t get it, a “mulligan”/second serve would be given, during which they could settle for the weaker underhand serve if absolutely necessary. Tamara was a big, strong girl, though, so I told her I believed she had what it took to serve overhand. She was clearly dubious about that and very disappointed, but I poured on the encouragement. By the third practice, she was looking like our best server. When our first game rolled around, she asked to serve first. It was amazing! I was tickled and felt that old gratification that a coach feels when a player overcomes their doubts and fears to achieve something they hadn’t thought possible. It’s that magic that keeps old coaches coaching.
Tamara was marching along beautifully for a few games, claiming the serve to start every game. I was feeding her belief with everything I had. She was winning us free points with her power and depth. She was rolling. Then, she had a game where she missed a few. It really got into her head, immediately. On a timeout, she came to me with the sunken eyes again: “Can I serve underhand from now on?” It totally floored me. As a guy who has a lot of self-confidence (and who hasn’t coached in a while), I was caught off-guard by how quickly her belief had melted away. I told her that technically she was allowed to, but that I hoped she would stick with it. I pointed out that despite the misses, she was scoring more points for us with her best shot than she was costing us with it. Crushed and dubious, she stuck with it for the rest of that game and found her rhythm again. After the match, I teased her, “Don’t ever ask me that again!”
We made our way through the final weeks of the season with Tamara serving well and got to the last tournament, when she again hit a rough patch and again asked if she could serve underhand. I told her no, she could not, and that she was better for the team when she went for her best shot. It was hard to watch her struggle so much with her self-confidence; it was obvious how fragile her belief in herself was and how quickly it abandoned her.
The tournament ended, and with it the realization that I will probably never see Tamara again. We had developed a nice rapport through this adventure with her serving and my belief in her, and probably because of that, her agonizing self-doubt really left an impression on me. I stewed on it for a few days, feeling like I wanted to leave her with one last parting shot that, just maybe, she could take with her for the rest of her life. I found her email address and wrote her a short note to thank her for playing. I ended it with this:
Life is like your volleyball serve. There will be setbacks along the way and moments when you lose confidence in yourself, but if you can somehow look at the bigger picture and realize how much better you are when you trust yourself and go for your best version, you and those around you come out so much better for it. Believe in yourself. Life deserves your overhand serve, and so do you. All the best to you in your bright future, Coach William
Writing that note to Tamara got me thinking about my own life, wondering how well I have done and how well I am currently doing at giving it my own version of the overhand serve. It is a tough question, because I think you have to look beyond obvious risks and accomplishments to find the truth (well, I hope you do). It is convenient for me to look back at certain times in my adulthood and say, “See, I took my shot!” I went to Hollywood in my early twenties to take a shot at acting. I climbed the ladder to a position of power in my first “real” career field. I took a chance on a cross-country love that turned out to be the love of my life. I achieved a long-time dream of writing a book. I take a regular shot when I write these letters to you. I can point to all of these things when I am put before the judge to plead my case that I am living like I mean it. But is that stuff enough? Is my case really all that convincing?
Some days at work, if I am in the midst of a mind-numbing task, I wonder to myself, “Is this the best I can do?” If I get late in the week and I haven’t come up with a topic I deem worthy of a letter to you and so decide to let the week pass and settle for trying next week, I think, “This feels like playing small.” When weeks and months go by and I don’t feel myself making an impact on other people’s lives, I feel my tension rise with the thought, “The clock is ticking down on my time here, and I am not doing enough.”
I am not sure what taking a bigger swing would look like for me right now. Is it a career change? Writing a new book? Running for political office? The pressure seems to be more embedded in the question, “Am I doing enough?” Of course, that question comes through in different versions: Can I justify my existence? Is this set of choices fulfilling? Am I living my purpose? Am I okay with this as my legacy? Am I happy?
I find myself in a lull when it comes to notable achievements. I have not blasted any life goals, passed any major milestones, or won any prizes lately. Even more, I don’t feel myself striving for a particular prize with any great urgency. I am kind of gliding along. Given my propensity to seek out the next mountain to climb, this current gliding makes me suspicious. I must be doing something wrong to be so unambitious. Shouldn’t I be more antsy? Why am I not climbing the walls and plotting to take over the world? Surely this is not my best shot. Right?
And yet, I am unmistakably happy. I enjoy my days. I love giving as much time as I do to my family, even as I am aware of it coming at a cost of my time for other, more aspirational accomplishments. I like my hobbies and want to devote even more time to them, even though I won’t win any of the popular prizes for them. So many of the things that I am looking forward to and orienting my time around are just fun. They are peace-inducing. Lots of good-for-the-soul kind of stuff. I am kept busy doing things that I enjoy. I’ve heard that’s a version of living the good life.
So, why do I still feel that nagging thought about doing more and bigger? Why did my note to Tamara about not settling for the Life version of the underhand serve make me wonder if it wasn’t addressed as much to me as to her? Why does this stretch of time without a significant achievement make me feel guilty and a little ashamed?
I realize that Life requires a balance of contentment and ambition. I also have come to realize that there are seasons in our lives that will lean more heavily, even completely, into one or the other. For me, at least, I cannot keep my nose constantly to the grindstone; I have learned to listen to my system’s signals that it needs a recharge. That has helped keep my creative juices flowing more consistently and fueled my passions for work and other interests. But I am also learning lately that it is possible for me to get too indulgent and lose my edge. For instance, if I go too long between letters to you, as I have done more in the last year, I get a little antsy. I need that regular challenge to keep my sword sharpened, to feel fully engaged in Life itself, and my purpose in it. It is a good thing to understand this about myself; it keeps me from getting lost.
So, am I giving Life my overhand serve right now? In a way, no. I am not ambitiously attacking a long-held dream or newfound passion project. But in another way, I think I am hitting it just solidly and aggressively enough for what the moment calls for. I am understanding where I am right now in my cycle and responding in a way that makes me feel happy. It won’t last forever, I know. I will have to adjust as my ambitions flare. But I trust that if I keep at my daily journaling and my quest for self-awareness and present mindfulness—and continue to believe that I have what it takes to rise to the occasion–I will keep adjusting the volume on my serve to meet the needs of my sensitive-yet-demanding soul. If I can stay on that razor’s edge, I think I can find a way to always keep it overhand.
How about you? Are you giving Life your best shot, or are you playing small? Open your journal and unpack your Truth. Does your self-belief have you striving for your best life? Perhaps it is easier to go back in your life story and follow your journey step-by-step as it relates to self-belief and the actions you have taken to decide your fate. How bold were you while growing up? Did you have the confidence to try things that you thought might interest you? Were you okay with struggle and failure if the endeavor was interesting or fun for you? Can you think of times when fear and insecurity kept you from trying something new (e.g. auditioning for a play or asking someone on a date)? If you had those moments and played small, how long (if ever) did it take for you to realize it? Were you able to learn from your meekest moments and then rise to similar moments later on? As you moved into adulthood, what was your level of self-belief? How did that affect the choices you made regarding Life stuff like career aspirations and relationships? Did you go for the things you dreamed about? Did you try new things? How open were you to meeting new people and joining new groups? Did you believe yourself worthy of a wonderful romantic partner? Can you point to specific moments in young adulthood when you bet on yourself or took a real chance to get what you wanted? How did that work out? Conversely, do you recall certain moments when you played small and hid your light, perhaps not believing you were worthy or ready for the best things? How much regret do you carry from those small moments? How have they shaped your life in the years since? Where do you find yourself lately when it comes to self-belief and the level of ambition behind your life choices? Are you still taking shots at your dreams and striving for your vision of a “best life,” or are you mostly floating along without much ambition? If you lack ambition, do you think that reflects more that you are basically satisfied with your life or that you don’t feel yourself worthy of more? As you look back through the years and the changes along your journey, do you see an ebb and flow in your level of ambition and boldness? Do you have seasons of contentment and ease, followed by seasons where you really strive for something big (e.g. getting an advanced degree or writing a book or gunning for a promotion)? Do you tend more toward the ease or more toward the striving? How has that changed over time? Do you feel more or less urgency as you age? What was the last big shot you took? What will be your next one? If you don’t have anything on your horizon, do you think that means it is time to find something? Or does that mean you are simply living right? On the whole, would you say your life is an underhand serve or an overhand serve? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you giving Life your best shot?
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. We rise by lifting others.
P.P.S. If this way of exploring your inner and outer worlds appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.