“If—”, by Rudyard Kipling

In his excellent book, Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentions one of John Wooden’s favorite poems, “If—,” by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Wooden recites the second stanza of the poem to Kareem, then explains:

“The lines I’m referring to, Lewis, are that Triumph and Disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a man of convictions. Lasting joy comes from that.”

—p90

Sidenote: Wooden, Kareem, and a whole slew of legendary NBA centers filmed a series of commercials for Reebok in 1993, featuring then-rookie Shaquille O’Neal. In one of those commercials, they recite the poem to Shaq. I couldn’t find the one with Kareem on YouTube, but I did find this version, which is nice because the person reciting the last line is Shaq’s father.

Lessons from my Zen Dentist

I’ve been seeing my dentist, Dr. Robert Ho, for about ten years now. He’s in my neighborhood, he teaches at UCSF, and he takes great care of my teeth. I might be the only person in the world who looks forward to seeing his dentist. He is a craftsman, and for that reason alone, I value him. He also tells engaging stories and dispenses warm, timely wisdom every time I see him. I’ve taken to calling him my Zen dentist.

At today’s session, he told me that he was feeling stressed about a recognition he had recently received from his peers that would require him to give a five-minute speech in front of 500 people. In classic fashion, he wanted to express his gratitude while also deflecting attention. As he skillfully cleaned my teeth, he asked me if he could share what he was thinking of saying and get my feedback. My mouth was full of dental implements, but I did my best to nod enthusiastically.

He proceeded to tell two stories about past patients that almost brought me to tears. I doubt I have much of a dental following, but I’m going to refrain from retelling his stories here so as not to inadvertently steal his thunder. I’ll just share his punchline:

My mentor always used to say that if you take care of people, you’ll always have food on your table. That’s what this business is about: Taking care of people.

I’m feeling great appreciation right now for all the people in my life who take care of me (including Dr. Ho). Reflecting on how I can do more of that in my own work and life.

Chucky and my Vision Board

I was in my late 30s at the end of 2012 when I decided to leave the company I had co-founded. I was predictably existential, both about my work and my life. I was also completely burned out, and I was more than happy to set aside any anxiety I might have about the future, and simply take a break.

After the weariness went away, I had a brief surge of energy and excitement, which slowly gave way to anxiety. I was scared of starting over. I believed in myself, but I was afraid that others didn’t. On top of all that, I had brazenly decided to put myself through an intellectually rigorous process of challenging every assumption I had about how to do my work well, not realizing that this would slowly, but surely chip away at all that hard-earned self-belief.

One of my coping mechanisms was to collect articles about people whose stories resonated and inspired me. I placed these articles in a folder entitled, “Vision Board.”

One of the articles I clipped was about Jon Gruden (also known as Chucky, because his intense grimace resembled the murderous doll’s expression). I briefly mentioned why I did this in a blog post later that year, but the longer explanation is:

  • The Raiders hired him as their head coach when he was 34
  • After leading the Raiders back to contention, owner Al Davis famously “traded” him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year, at 39, Chucky and the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
  • He was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009 at 45

Everyone expected him to get right back into coaching, but he didn’t. Instead, he rented an office in Tampa Bay and proclaimed it headquarters for FFCA (Fired Football Coaches of America). It was a place where he could continue to study the game, and where people who loved football as much as he did could hang out and pick his brain. The space was pure, devoid of selfish interests tarnishing his viewpoints. And coaches and quarterbacks at all levels came in droves to hang out with Gruden.

(Another frequent guest, as it turns out, was Mark Davis, son of Al, who took over the Raiders when the elder Davis passed away.)

Over the years, his role evolved to include chief analyst of Monday Night Football and host of Gruden’s QB Camp, which quickly became legendary. Every year, people expected him to jump back into coaching, but year after year, he turned down all comers. He was happy doing his thing, which included both football and spending time with his family, something that wouldn’t be possible as a coach.

Gruden’s story resonated with me — his intense passion, his devotion to the game, his age when he stopped coaching, and his creativity in balancing his passion with his other interests while resisting the pull to coach purely out of habit.

Today, the prodigal son came home. Gruden decided it was time to coach again, and in a twist of all twists, he’ll be coaching the Raiders. Mark Davis apparently had been trying to re-hire Gruden for the past six years, and it finally happened.

I’m happy for Gruden and for Raiders fans. I “came out of retirement” myself a little over two years ago, so his ongoing story and the different parallels continue to inspire me.

Photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods. Public domain and found in Wikimedia Commons.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Excerpts from Jose A. Alcantara’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, via Mark Leach:

If you have a compass, smash it.
Nothing can point you to true anything, let alone true north.
Besides — and never forget this — you are trying to get lost.
You may be gone for a long time
so be sure not to pack any food or water.
It is only the hungry who feed, only the thirsty who are quenched.

Before you leave, be sure to write a note
telling everyone exactly where you will not be.
The last thing you need is someone coming to your rescue.

Now, find the best map possible
and tear it up. You will be traveling on a scale
that no one has ever drawn.

Do not leave a string of crumbs behind you.
This would only attract predators.
On second thought, go ahead.

Write postcards telling everyone of your adventures.
Be sure to lie, like a fox leaving false tracks.
Someday they will thank you.

You will not know when you have arrived.
But if you think you have, you haven’t.
If you think haven’t, you probably have.

If you come to a fork in the road
stab yourself in the foot with it. You will
reach your destination much faster if you are limping.

Better yet, use it to pluck out your eyes.
There are many signposts along the way.
Maybe now you will learn to see.

A Shift in Perspective

San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Ed Batista, someone whose work I’ve been following and whose writing I’ve been admiring for many, many years. Ed suggested we walk through the Presidio, a lush, expansive park and former Army base overlooking the ocean and the Bay on the northwest side of San Francisco.

I live close to the Presidio, and I’ve walked through it many times, but I haven’t really explored it. I have a few set walks that I do there, and I’ve mostly left it at that.

Ed took me on a different, wandering route that took us all around the park. At various points, I found myself in familiar places, only at slightly different vantage points, often a bit higher and further back. I found it remarkable how a small shift in perspective completely changed my experience of a place that I know pretty well.

I’ve been sitting with this experience since that beautiful walk, wondering how I might shift my habits in small ways and what I might discover as a result.