Usain Bolt is a legend. His last competitive race on Jamaican soil will be ran on June 10, 2017. Undoubtedly, Jamaica and the world are eagerly anticipating that race. Unfortunately for me, I will not be in Jamaica to witness this race of honour. However, I found myself thinking about Usain St. Leo Bolt as I read Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit.
I should admit that I am a regular book-buyer. Grit was a purchase I made in Summer 2016, but I only started reading it in May 2017, as I was reflecting on my own experiences with failure. The book has been impacting me, and I have decided to take it bit by bit (also because I am in the middle of research), and soak in all the lessons. Angela Duckworth, the author, is an award-winning psychologist. She was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which is otherwise known as the ‘Genius’ Grant. Her bestselling book uses her own research and that of others to show that success and outstanding achievement in any field are not built on talent, but by a combination of passion and persistence which she calls “grit.”
In 2004, a young Usain Bolt, having just stamped his class on Jamaica’s Boys and Girls Championships, was placed on the biggest stage of his life at that time. It was the occasion of the Olympic Games in Athens. Usain, instead of wearing the William Knibb Memorial High School’s colours, had donned the Jamaican running kit of black, green and gold. Owing to his exploits at the high school level, expectations were high as Jamaica awaited a stellar performance from the young talent. Usain Bolt failed in that race. A hamstring injury left him at the back of the pack in this first round race. Jamaicans, known to be people of high expectations and not very happy to deal with disappointment, were not shy in expressing their dissatisfaction at this anti-climatic finish. Usain Bolt was booed.
For a lesser man, that would have been the end of the road. A young Usain could have been so overwhelmed by this failure, that he could have quit running. I wonder if at any point in Athens he questioned if he was not as talented as other young sprinters at this world stage? Can you believe that it was possible that the world may not have learned the lightning bolt pose, watched him break records or become enamoured by Bolt’s electric personality? Thankfully, that did not happen, because Usain Bolt has grit.
Grit, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is firmness of mind or spirit, and unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Angela Duckworth, who has created a grit scale, defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Over many interviews, we have learned that Usain Bolt has a passion for running, and he loves to win. We have all become acquainted with Bolt’s confidence. Jamaican blogger, Lecia-Gaye Taylor wrote a brilliant piece about Usain’s confidence, which you can find here.
Undoubtedly, Usain was disappointed by his 2004 performance. Many of us know that it is not easy to keep going after failure. “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things aren’t.” However, Usain had a clear vision of who he wanted to be and what records he wanted to decimate on his journey to greatness. If he was to be a success, he needed to pick himself up from Athens and commit to getting healthy, staying healthy and training like never before. As I reflected on that, I mused about a particular section in Duckworth’s book. She asserts that those who are successful in any field have a ‘ferocious determination’ which plays out in two ways. “First,” Duckworth writes, “these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” This is very applicable to Usain Bolt. His vision for himself was a lofty one. He always wanted to be a superstar and he always wanted to be an exceptional athlete. Having a talent for running was not enough. Grit says that having potential is one thing, but what we do with that potential is something else, completely. Usain’s vision for himself and an unshakeable determination, supported by the direction of his coach, Glen Mills, have propelled him to being the greatest athlete of all time.
High achievers in sports, academics and business get to the zenith of their lives through a combination of passion and perseverance. Usain Bolt had the passion. He has had to persevere. Bolt trains hard, and I mean really hard. He is reported to have said that sometimes at the end of a training session, he would throw up. Each week, he goes through the pain of stressing his muscles, gritting his teeth, steeling his mind and going through rigorous, repetitive exercises. He has not taken an easy way to success and routinely submits to drug testing. See, we are comfortable and happy to talk about the mysticism of Usain Bolt’s talent. When he runs, as we marvel at his exploits, we don’t ask how he has gotten there. We enjoy seeing excellence on display. However, we do not spend enough time looking at the mundanity of effort, regular training and persistence that often lead to the displays we enjoy. Grit to push through difficult moments and commitment to completing small actions have resulted in excellence personified in Usain Bolt.
In 2017, Usain Bolt, a Jamaican from Sherwood Content in Trelawney, is the world’s fastest man. He holds the world record in the 100 and 200 metre races. He is the recipient of numerous awards and medals. Although Usain Bolt will end his professional and competitive running career soon, he will always be remembered for his excellence. As a matter of fact, he will remain excellent, because excellence is not only in actions, but it is an attitude. Having worked on a small set with Usain Bolt in the past, I can tell you that even in the simplest acts, he endeavours to give excellence.
There are many lessons that we can learn from Usain. Today, I have emphasised the importance of effort in achieving success. See, in many ways, people have always rewarded natural talent and often choose to nurture only those who demonstrate a natural knack for certain things. This is evident in education. Students who display an aptitude for any subject are often rewarded and encouraged to pursue that area. Why do we often assume that it is talent, and not effort, which determines how successful students will end up being in life? Interestingly, Duckworth tells us that, “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.” Hard work and the dedication to trying must also be recognised. They help to strengthen the grit muscle. Additionally, it is critical that we learn to keep going after we have encountered failure. A ‘never give up’ attitude is the healthy hamstring in the race to greatness. Learn from Usain Bolt and do not quit at the things you are passionate about. You don’t need to win at it from the beginning. However, if you strive to be a ‘paragon of perseverance,’ greatness is attainable. Dan Chambliss encourages us to remember that we can all achieve greatness. He says, “Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.” Nurture within yourself a culture of long-term learning and growth, so that short-term failures do not ever tie you down.
Usain, thank you for the moments of euphoric celebration that you have given to Jamaica. Thank you for remaining your authentic self, grounded by your parents and long-standing best friend. Thank you for being a role model. Thank you for the life lessons. Thank you for embodying grit as you journeyed to greatness. Although you will eventually do one last race, Jamaica and the world will always remember that there will always be only one Usain Bolt.
Perhaps the grittiest.
Unquestionably, the Greatest.