A few days ago, I spotted a story in the Washington Post about a famous football quarterback, Joe Theismann, whose football career ended thirty years ago with a very badly broken leg. The headline read, “Thirty Years later, Joe Theismann Calls His Broken Leg A Blessing.”
I thought to myself...Wait a second. Did I read that right?
Theismann is not saying 'I’m OK even though I broke my leg and lost my career as a football star.'
He’s not saying 'I’m doing the best I can in spite of my traumatic injury.'
He’s saying his injury was a BLESSING?
Before you conclude that Theismann is crazy, or just kidding himself, consider for a moment his way of thinking and feeling about the injury.
“That night really changed my life tremendously – to the positive…I had become quite full of myself. I had thought that the world revolved around me; the team was only successful because of me. But as I look back on my life and where I was going, yeah, I was on top of the world—the football world – but I really wasn’t as a person. I’d started to not appreciate people, relationships. ….And if I was going to be able to go forward with my life, there were things that I needed to do to change. There’s ways I needed to change the person that I was. And I continue to stay on that journey, to try and be a better human being, to treat people better, to respect people, to understand more about who I am, where I want to go, what I need to do, how I can give something back.” (Washington Post, 11/19/2015)
Now, let’s consider how Theismann is thinking and feeling about an event that could have ruined his life. He is not deflated or defeated by the event. He is not tormenting himself with regret, thinking again and again about what could have or should have happened instead of the injury. He is not shrugging his shoulders and moving through life indifferently. Notice that he is not even merely accepting the event peacefully and moving on. He is going one step further: he is observing and embracing the opportunity that the event presented to him! Put another way, he is giving thanks for this otherwise tragic turn in this life and turning it to advantage.
Let’s contrast Theismann’s way of thinking and feeling with the way so many people think and feel. In order to be happy and to play their game, they need for things to go right, to go their way. Think about what so many people fear in their daily lives: a bad test score, a defeat on the athletic field, a rejection from the college of choice. They fear these outcomes before they happen, stress over them while they are happening, and regret them after they happen. They can stay happy and confident—as long as none of these bad things happen!
This way of thinking and feeling is certainly not unusual or abnormal, but it can make us fragile and permanently bar us from our best performance. We here at MuchSmarter find, year in and year out, that people perform best in academic work, standardized tests, and all other games, when they learn to let go of self-limiting emotions such as fear, worry, stress, impatience, and frustration.
One path to emotional mastery—what we call “building smarter emotions”—is learning not to be too attached to our outcomes. We learn to focus our attention on the game itself—on first learning, then repetitively practicing, the skills that power our game. Approaching the game this way, we become more successful more often, and even more importantly, we are not defeated and derailed by the “bad” outcomes that inevitably come our way (no matter how skilled we are)!
So now, let’s return to the genius of thanksgiving, of Joe Theismann’s way of thinking and feeling.
Everything that happens either supports us or challenges us. We can be thankful for those things—love, praise, encouragement, fortune—that support us and make us feel good. We can be thankful for those things—losses, defeats, even hardships—that challenge us, help us become stronger, and help us discover who we are and what we can do.
With that in mind, do good work this week, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Dan Steinberg, "Thirty Years Later, Joe Theismann Calls his Broken Leg a Blessing." The Washington Post, November 19, 2015