When I was in high school I participated in track and field each spring. It was the perfect sport for someone like me who lives at the Venn diagram intersection of interested-in-self-improvement and terrible-at-baseball.
Track & field is simple to understand. It provides clear and immediate feedback on both your performance and your improvement. If your times go down, or your distances go up, you improved. If your measures go backward, you are going backward. As Jerry Reed sang, ‘When you’re hot you’re hot. When you’re not you’re not.’ Nothing is subjective.
However, at the end of each season, there was one subjective element: The Awards Banquet.
At Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire, there were 4 awards handed out at the Track & Field Team banquet.
1. Freshman Of The Year.
2. Most improved.
4 The Samuelson Award for Oustanding Athlete (The award was named after the Samuelson family that Olympic gold medal marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson married into. Her husband Scott has now held our high school’s pole vault record for 47 years.)
During my 4-year high school track and field career, I won 3 out of 4 of our school’s awards. But there was only one of them that I really wanted.
I was totally forgettable my first year. While I scored enough points at meets that season to earn a varsity letter I wasn’t turning any heads. My good friend Ben Soderholm was the Freshman Of The Year. No contest. Ben was special right out of the blocks. Looking back now I figure that God knew that his life would be a sprint and he better get started fast to get as much in as he could during his relatively short life. (I miss you bro. Also, I realize that you probably don’t read my blog posts anymore. Or do you…)
My sophomore year I improved 30 feet in the discus and 7 feet in the shot put. I placed well in our conference meet and in the state championship meet in the discus. At the banquet, I was named the Most Improved Athlete.
My junior year I improved another 31 feet in the discus, and another 6 feet in the shot put. I was the state champion, New England Champion, and broke our school record in the discus. I also ran some hurdles, sprints and high jumped too. None of those performances would have won me any awards other than Most Willing To Be Vulnerable. At the banquet, I was named the team MVP.
My senior year I won a state championship, repeated as the New England champion, and set a state record that would stand for 12 years. At the banquet, I won the Samuelson Award as the Outstanding Athlete (male or female).
While I was certainly honored to win the Samuelson Award, I was envious of my teammate who won Most Improved. I was obsessed with that award. It was my personal quirk. But that quirk served me well. And the obsession with the MIA award is what won me the other 2 awards.
I wanted to improve so much each year that I would be the obvious and undisputed Most Improved Athlete each year, no matter how good I became. It was a healthy obsession. (Not a case of possession obsession.) I loved the work. I loved the sacrifice. I loved the process. And I loved the results like Joan Jett loves rock n’ roll.
Looking back several decades later, I also loved what the process of improvement in track and field taught me about improvement in the rest of my life. The desire to greet each day a little better than the day before is core to my mission and my self-image.
Today, I am focused on self-improvement in various roles including:
- Person who has a body. (I am focused on improving my fitness. But this construct made it awkward to state that. Sorry.)
- List maker
Today, much of my self-improvement comes from reading, studying, and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. It comes through listening to the wisdom of others. And through trial and error. It is a product of accumulating knowledge. As a result, I get better at things slowly, but steadily.
The most encouraging part of my journey is that I can feel the improvement. Just as I could tell that I was improving as an athlete thanks to the tape measure, I can tell that I am better at the 10 roles listed above. And as I get better at these, other people inquire about my approach to each of these roles. I have found that the simplest measure of your improvement in any area is whether or not people are asking you for insights and advice on that topic.
Life is one long self-improvement journey. Take what you learned about self-improvement through athletics, music, dance, acting, scouts, or any other childhood activity and apply it to your adult roles. Get a little bit better every day. The compounding effect of your improvements will change your life in ways that you can’t even imagine.
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+For more of the best life lessons I have learned check out my book, What Does Your Fortune Cookie Say? from Ripples Media.