Roger Federer's recent Australian Open win reminded me of the apocryphal tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider. Legend has it that Robert, King of Scots, was in a cave where he observed a spider trying to bridge a gap in the roof. Twice the spider tried and failed. On the third attempt, it succeeded, inspiring Robert to ignore his prior defeats and face the English in future battles. Federer may not have heard of this story, but he certainly lived up to the adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again."
The difference between the truly great and the merely great is in how intense their focus is even when their mind and body want to rebel.
I'm an unabashed Federer fan, but in my defense, these thoughts don't stem from Federer's exploits alone—they also include lessons from Nadal's efforts to stay relevant. While they have both proven their mettle and endurance on the court, their methods are worthy of application in life. Despite enjoying fabulous careers throughout the 2000s, both have been written off in the past few years. Tennis pundits have repeatedly predicted that neither will win a major tournament again. Making a mockery of these predictions, they both reached the finals of the Australian Open to revisit their rivalry. So what's the secret behind their enduring success?
They're both insanely hard-working, talented, intelligent and more. But these are baseline characteristics that ALL top tennis players possess. They do not distinguish Federer or Nadal from the rest, nor do they explain their longevity and victories. Studying their methods could yield important lessons for all of us. So what makes them so tough, different and lastingly successful?
They feel boundless joy in their calling
They exude a sense of joy in what they do and in life. Despite the hard work, the long hours, the defeats, both Federer and Nadal display true passion and love for their sport. One cannot master any pursuit without truly loving it, irrespective of rewards. If sportsmen were in it just for the medals or trophies, there would come a time when the effort wouldn't justify the short-lived elation of winning tournaments. The same applies for one's career. Money, promotions, titles and other outward manifestations of success cannot serve as sustainable motivation to put in the hard yards needed to achieve one's fullest potential without the essential ingredient—joie de vivre.
They retain control of their life's narrative
To quote H. W. Longfellow, "Into each life some rain must fall." And fall it will. In everyone who has achieved enduring greatness, I see that they never feel anything is out of their control. While naysayers have waxed eloquent about why Federer or Nadal can't win again, the players have always behaved like they are in control and know that things will work out. Achieving lasting success is not about never losing control, it is about being able to wrest mental control back to where you truly believe that only you have control over all the elements that make life meaningful and great. Without this, there will always be the odd incident, the occasional defeat, the unforeseen injury or the disappointment of missing out, which will lead you to give up and lose hope.
They are immune to boredom
Ever tried doing something really hard every day come rain or shine for years on end? I'm willing to wager that every player in the ATP/WTA top-100 has done so since childhood. The difference between the truly great and the merely great is in how intense their focus is even when their mind and body want to rebel.
It's human to feel bored occasionally, no matter how passionate one is or how glorious the reward. So, what's the downside? When one succumbs to boredom, learning gets compromised. Excelling at something needs continuous learning—observing what does and doesn't work. The hard work needed to stay competitive forces all players to continue practicing come what may. While going through the motions may prevent the guilt of skipping the work altogether, loss of focus will compromise the quality of these sessions. A cultivated immunity to boredom is essential for reaching peak potential. Learning is a compound-interest-bearing instrument—every single day counts.
They are audaciously optimistic
Even in the darkest of times, both Federer and Nadal seem dejected but quietly positive. It could be optimism born of self-awareness of their mastery over their sport. But can this be attributed to rational thought alone? Having been defeated ad nauseam by a looping top-spin forehand to a relatively weaker single-handed backhand, does Federer feel no self-doubt? Having had multiple injuries time and again, does Nadal not doubt his body's fragility? Self-doubt is an endearingly human quality that should not be treated as weakness. It keeps the best grounded and provides a much-needed antidote to an inflated ego. However, overcoming self-doubt leads to a razor-sharp focus on what needs doing. This transformation of self-doubt into progress-oriented action is a trick that only optimistic people accomplish. While the rest wallow in dark thoughts, optimistic people choose NOT to live powerlessly in the face of difficulties. Audacious optimism born of an abundance of enterprise and initiative is no bad thing.
Grit + Gumption = Glory
Want to be like Federer or Nadal? Take a generous helping of determination and hard work. Throw in a soupçon of gumption with audacious optimism and common sense. Top off with loads of grit by eschewing boredom and believing that you alone control your destiny!