The latest research shows that 7% of high schoolers reported being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property; 20% reported being bullied; and 33% reporting being in a physical fight within the last year. Whether or not you’ve been on one side of those statistics, there’s something important I want you to know: being tough isn’t about controlling, intimidating, bullying, dissing or defeating another person. In fact, there’s nothing easier than making yourself look and feel good by making someone else look and feel bad. Needing to diminish the value of others in order to increase your value is a sure sign of weakness. And it’s not the path to reaching your dreams.
We live in a world where we often see and hear people forcing their way through life, leaving a trail of others behind them all in the name of success. It’s a lie that you shouldn’t believe. The success that comes with that behavior is an empty, lonely success that won’t last. While being a confident and assertive person is an important quality, being confident and assertive is not the same thing as being cocky and aggressive. If you are cocky, you don’t care about what others think or feel—you just do “your thing” with an air of aggression and apathy. On the other hand, if you are truly confident, you know how to assert yourself in a respectful, conscientious manner. While everyone may not agree with you all the time, you never devalue someone for thinking or acting differently. In fact, if you truly believe in what you are doing and ultimately know it’s right, then you shouldn’t need to say a word—the results of your actions will eventually be proof enough.
In the end, those around you are never immune to your words and actions. None of us lives in a cave. But if you choose to do what’s right, and if you choose to value the lives of others as much as you value your own, while others won’t always agree with what you say and do, in time they will always come to respect you. And earning the respect of those who are different than you or don’t see eye-to-eye with you is the truest meaning of tough. Be truly tough.
One of the keys to bouncing back from adversity is accepting responsibility for your future, in thick and thin. That doesn’t mean you remain where you are. And it doesn’t mean you downplay negative circumstances or act like you enjoyed every moment you’ve been alive. What it does mean is that you reach a point where you stand firm and assert, “Nobody but me can make something of my life.” It’s ultimately an admission that you have no excuse for not giving your all to be successful.
In the end, excuses are a sign of weakness. We all have reasons—some of them very legitimate reasons—to stop pursuing our dreams. I must have had a couple thousand before I reached middle school. So did Wendy and my mom and dad. You might too. But you can’t let your reasons for quitting dumb down your desire to succeed. Instead of spending time finding excuses, spend time finding ways to improve.
There is a critical difference between acknowledging your potential excuses and accepting them. To achieve your dreams, you have to understand this difference.
Accepting excuses is the same as accepting that you have no say in the outcome of your life. It is admitting that the negative forces in your life will always push you around and have the final word. It is accepting that your life will be defined by your circumstances and what others say about you. This is a tragic surrender because your excuses are the furthest thing from the truth about you or your potential.
There is a far better way to approach your potential excuses. Acknowledge them but refuse to accept them. It is healthy to acknowledge your potential excuses for not pursuing your dreams. Essentially, it is the same thing as acknowledging that your dreams have enemies. More than that, it is calling out your dreams’ enemies by name so they can be defeated specifically and purposefully.
Call out your excuses. Then defeat them day by day.
My mom’s boyfriend had just thrown me to the ground and kicked me senseless with his steel-toe boots, eventually cracking two ribs. When I covered my ribs he riddled my face with four of five quick punches. Once he had his fill, he drug me to my room and threw me on the bed, swearing curses over me if I tried to defend my mom again. Then he slammed the door shut. I rolled onto my side and licked the cut on my lower lip as I tried again to draw a deep breath.
“What’s the point?” I gasped.
I was fourteen years old and fighting day in and day out with my mom’s grown boyfriends when I should have been enjoying life with friends like a normal kid my age. That night my heart began crying out, over and over: “Why does life have to be so hard? What did I do to deserve this?”
I began sobbing into my covers. “I can’t do this anymore,” I choked out. “No one cares. No one has ever cared. Who would even miss me if I was gone?”
I had come face to face with the toughest fight every one of us faces—the fight within ourselves. I wanted to thrive, to live a good life, and to reach my potential, but it seemed foolish to believe it was possible. Inside, I knew I had only two options. I could wipe off the blood and tears again and keep fighting for my dreams. Or I could surrender to my circumstances and let them dictate my future. It was ultimately a decision about my potential. Most importantly, it was my decision.
I closed my eyes and thought about everything I’d been through. Then I thought about everything I still wanted to do in my life. In my head, I wanted to quit. But my heart screamed, “Don’t surrender!” I went back and forth between my head and my heart for nearly a hour, dabbing the blood from my mouth every couple minutes. Finally my heart wore down my head. I closed my eyes and made a vow to never again let quitting be an option. If somebody stole my life that was one thing; but I wasn’t going to surrender it on my own. Neither should you. NEVER surrender your dreams.
By the time I was 25, I’d risen above all the collateral damage of growing up with a drug-addicted mother and achieved a high degree of success. I was a professional basketball player over in Europe and I was having a great year on the court. Offers were coming in from teams all over Europe. I was being sponsored by a major shoe company. There’s no question I had made big sacrifices to get where I was in that moment. The success felt good.
What I didn’t yet understand was that for me to continue pursuing my dreams—my biggest dreams of all—I would have to make an even greater sacrifice. I’d have to give up the very dream that inspired me to fight through my brutal childhood: basketball.
I’d be lying if I told you it was easy. It’s not like I was riding the bench. I was voted to start the All-Star Game. I’d won the dunk contest in my rookie year. I was my team’s leading scorer. Leaving basketball, in perfect health and with my best years ahead of me, was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. But in the end I came to see that continued success requires continued sacrifice.
Nobody likes the sacrificial part of success. Giving things up, especially good things, is never easy. The reason so few people become great in any given field is that so many people become good and then refuse to make the extra sacrifice it takes to reach higher. But the fact remains; if you want to be great at anything in life, if you want to reach your highest peak of potential, you will have to sacrifice something that’s good along the way.
Don’t settle for good enough. Strive for greatness.
Colonel Sanders chicken recipe was turned down 1,009 times. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. Abraham Lincoln failed in business twice and lost in seven political elections. Walt Disney’s attempt to secure financing for Disney World was turned down 302 times. Albert Einstein was believed to be mentally handicapped in elementary school and was later expelled from high school.
Life is a process, not a single event. And a process is always marked by successes and failures. That’s important to know because it’s easy to get down whenever you experience a setback from your dreams. But being resilient and bouncing back higher demands that you take ownership of who you are and what you do—the good and the bad—and keep moving forward. That means that while you must always strive to improve, you should also give yourself room to fail. I’m not talking about making excuses or setting your expectations low. I’m talking about setting your standards high and pushing yourself as hard as you possibly can while maintaining the perspective that you will still make mistakes, sometimes big ones.
The key to reaching your dreams is not avoiding failure; it’s going to happen no matter how talented or mindful you are, and especially if you’re going after something big. The key is knowing what to do when you fail. The first thing you should do is not panic. Every successful person has failed numerous times. The second thing you should do is take ownership of what you did and determine what the results revealed about you. Finally, you should take immediate action in a better direction. A higher direction. That’s how you fail forward. You don’t wait to feel better about yourself. You don’t wait for the dust to settle or the situation to somehow fix itself. You do what you have to do right away, whether that’s apologizing to someone or redoing the work or practicing another hour until you get it right.
Remember that the key to success is in rising higher each time you hit the floor. In fact, you couldn’t learn to bounce if you weren’t thrown down once in a while. As long as there is breath in your lungs, you need to hold onto the truth that failure is not fatal. The greatness of your life is in direct proportion to your willingness to keep fighting for what you believe in despite the missteps along the way. Do that consistently, for long enough, and your success will far outweigh your failures.
It’s a new year. If you haven’t already, now is a perfect time to begin fighting for your dreams. No matter what happened last year or any year before. By this time next year, your life will be seen in a new light.