Messi and Whiplash: Lessons from Persistence

Joonsoo Yi:

I don’t like spitting out adages, but it’s often said that success is a small outcome of a long journey. It’s a universal truth that everyone acknowledges: you can’t get to the end of the journey and bask in success unless you go through that long, painful, bitter, nauseating, self-doubting, journey in the first place.

But in a results-oriented society, people want immediate gratification and quick results. They’re looking for cheat codes and short cuts.

That’s why some people take steroids in hopes of enhancing their perception of self-image. Others take psychoactive drugs to escape reality, and the great majority of people take alcohol as a crutch to feel better about themselves and have fun around others.

They don’t want it the natural, painstakingly difficult and horrendously traumatizing way of self-improvement. They want outcome, NOW. But who says you need steroids to be fit? Who says you need heroine to overcome depression? Who says you need alcohol to be confident, and have fun?

Some don’t even try, or give up half way. Take the different type of dudes at the gym.

Some take the short cut (results-oriented) by taking steroids. They don’t actually “enjoy” the process that other people have to go through. They don’t like “pain” and they have no patience to go through the process of failing, busting through the failure through persistence, and succeeding at the end of the tunnel having gone through and overcome all the obstacles. As a result, these people don’t know what it feels like to achieve something, because they’ve never gone through the traumatizing experience of facing challenges.

Some don’t even bother. They don’t exercise at all.

Others half-ass it, thinking they will get the results. These people do actually try, and try to endure and enjoy the process, but lack the will-power and persistence to push their limits. I am, of course, talking about the sort of people who would “only” go to the gym once or twice a week, has poor diet, and then complains why they’re not getting the results they want. They “want” to improve, but they lack the will-power and desire to get what they want, so they end up half-assing it. I call this denying your laziness on a deep subconscious level.

The lesson to be taken out of this is that it’s very rare that you meet someone who not only enjoys what they do but have enough will-power and desire to push through and persist against all the obstacles they face along the way.

Take the movie Whiplash. Andrew (the main drummer) is really passionate about playing the drum. But passion alone would digress as a hobby. Anything that’s relatable to passion is painful. Playing a musical instrument is fun, but to get really, and I mean, really, good at it, it shouldn’t be fun at all. The challenge is to overcome this lack of fun and persist nonetheless and have the will-power to continue practicing until you get really good at it. Then at the end of the tunnel, there’s a brief moment of glittering success, until you realize there are actually no limits to getting good at something, and that whatever journey you set your feet on is never-ending. Your journey is a life-long journey.

Same goes for painting, writing, sports, running a business, charity, acting, chess, public speaking, etc., etc. There are no exceptions to life in this regard. You ask Pablo Picasso, Vladimir Nabokov, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, Steve Jobs, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hans Zimmer and Tony Robbins how they became so good at what they do and they WILL all return the exactly identical, and scarily mechanical, answer: they enjoyed the process, went through a shit-load of failures and humiliation, but eventually overcame them and even when they reached the finish-line, they weren’t content and always tried to improve, all the while enjoying what they do.

That’s persistence. It’s a sick addiction to suffering combined with an abnormal distaste for contentedness. People like these are sadomasochists. They enjoy all the hurdles they face (process, not results, oriented) because they are addicted to the feeling of overcoming them. Outcome (perceived success) is just a nice bonus, at least on a motivational level. Even though these people think this way, they ALWAYS deliver and get what they want. Huge emphasis on having fun while being serious about it. If there’s no fun, no passion, why even bother. Lionel Messi once said that the moment he loses his passion for football, he’ll quit.

Now, Whiplash is a great representation, and the best I’ve seen, of what sort of inner and outer process that someone goes through when they want to get better at something. There are loads of things to learn from the movie, and I’ll discuss them here (relatively spoiler-free):

a) Taking high-risk, radical, decisions. Half way through the movie, Andrew decides to break up with a girl he’s had a crush on. It wasn’t an easy decision for him but he told her something along the lines of he wants to become one of the best drummers in history (not just one of the best, but THE best) and romance would hamper him from attaining this end. Likewise, a young Messi from a small town in Argentina made a radical decision when he and his family moved to Barcelona because you can’t groom your talent in small places. So, Messi sacrificed whatever he had (leaving his friends behind), moved to Barcelona knowing it’s a very radical decision, but did it anyway. This is linked to my next observation, which is desire.

b) Desire is hard to quantify. When someone says “I want to be rich” or “I want to be happy” most people would dismiss it as way too superficial and ambiguous. How I see it is the following: when someone says he wants to be rich, I look beyond the surface level and look deep down. I ask myself does this person really, actually, want to be rich? Anyone can utter the statement “I want to be rich” because who wouldn’t want to be rich? You might not care about material wealth (and be nonchalant about it), but when faced with $50M, no one on the face of the earth would not take it. If you really want something, you would do anything (and I mean anything) to make it happen. In the movie, Andrew didn’t simply “want” to get better at drumming, he really wanted it, and he wanted it bad. So he did everything in his power to make this happen. He practiced every day, he bled everyday, he wanted to quit, but he still did it anyway. Would a person who “just wanted to get better at drumming” bother going through all this trouble? Absolutely not. They would give up.

c) Obsession. Obsession is often mixed up with passion, but for all the wrong reasons. These two are inevitably intertwined. What begins as a mild interest develops into passion and eventually obsession. Andrew was obsessed about drumming. Even when he got good, he wanted to get better and better every time he played. Similarly, by 2009, Lionel Messi (aged 22) was already the best footballer in the world. He won his first Ballon d’Or. He was the best winger in the world and the best dribbler. In 2010, he got even better. Now in addition to being the best winger, best dribbler in the world, he became the best goal-scorer in the world, which made him the best striker in the world. By the end of 2012, he was statistically the best goal-scorer in the history of football by scoring 73 goals in a single season and 92 goals in a single calendar year, both of which are Guinness world records. People were saying he couldn’t get any better, he peaked way too early. So when in 2013, he actually improved other areas of his game, people were shocked. By 2013, he was the best free-kick specialist in the world. This wasn’t enough so he worked on his weak foot, and by the end of 2014, he started scoring a lot of goals with his right foot. And in 2015, he has established himself as the best playmaker in the history. He’s also been working on his stamina and defensive skills, which allows him to cover all areas of the pitch (defensively and offensively) all game and still have the stamina to play 3 times a week. Best full-back in the world (if he wanted to), best midfielder/playmaker, best winger, best striker/goal-scorer in the history of football.

The take-way is this: whatever it is that you decide to do, persist. And don’t think about giving up. There are no short-cuts, no cheat-codes. The only cheat-code for success is actually taking action, and not being lazy. And enjoy. Buckle up your seatbelt, this is going to be a long journey.

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