This post was originally authored in September 2015.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: the journey is more important than the destination.
Now raise your hand if you’ve heard of Roberta Vinci.
Well, I’ve heard the former on numerous occasions, but I never really got it until I heard of the latter.
You see, yesterday I was watching the women’s final of the US Open tennis tournament. The scene the day before featured an experienced victor and an expected outcome. Serena Williams was the three-time defending champion of that event and was also trying to complete the calendar Grand Slam. She was the headline, and her expected destination was the focus.
That all changed when she was defeated by a little known player named Roberta Vinci. For the title, Roberta would face an even lesser-known player named Flavia Pennetta. Both Italians (a first for the Open) and childhood friends.
So instead of a match set up to reinforce one player’s legacy I saw something completely unexpected. A player (not your typical competitor) who was there for the joy of it, because the opportunity was there to play.
In her post-match interview after defeating Williams, Vinci revealed that her only objective was to “run, and hit the ball.” No expectations. Just doing what she truly enjoyed. The result was miraculous, and she went on to play in the spotlight. She lost the title to Pennetta but the joy of being there never faded. And in displaying the joy even in her defeat, she won. It was in stark contrast to elite professionals who expect to be there and who are miserable when those expectations aren’t met.
There is a lesson here for all of us to consider as we pursue our daily work. I’ve been in Silicon Valley for almost twenty years now, and I’m continually struck by the emphasis on winning or striving to win. A sense of entitlement that comes from having an eye on the prize – a top role at a top brand, going public, getting rich. Expectations are high. What have you done lately? And at what age?
Contemporary society celebrates outcomes, not works-in-progress. Today we don’t have to wait for publications such as Fast Company or the Harvard Business Review to celebrate individual accomplishment. We can promote ourselves on LinkedIn or Facebook. And in turn we become voyeurs of others’ successes – what’s the story behind the story? How did they get there? What choices did they make? Where did they reverse course? What does that mean for me? And the most dangerous question of all: What should I be doing?
I have been pulled into this trap on occasion. And it is a trap. The constant obsession of where we should be next. I am natural planner, so it’s hard to resist. As someone with a great education and lots of experience it’s expected – isn’t it?
But what happens when you just relax and enjoy what you’re doing right now. What if you were to stay present (as yogis everywhere encourage) and focus on where you are now. What opportunities do you have to keep learning and doing, doing and learning? Letting things unfold from there. Doing your work with interest, curiosity, optimism, maybe even joy.
I saw the possibilities yesterday, on television, and in the most unexpected place. A tennis match.