This quote embodies my approach to everything to do with life and how I live it. As I researched the quote, I found that the quote actually starts with the prefix: ‘To achieve greatness, start where you are….’ and so on, but once I’ve researched a quote in order to give it proper reference and credit, I like to make the point as I see it from the words that have the most impact on me so I chose to miss the first bit out because the issue is not about greatness as such but more about the simple truth that to achieve anything or to get anywhere in life you simply have to start from where you are at. Greatness just happens to be incidental to the process or the journey and my personal definition of greatness anyway is not orthodox. I look at things much more individualistically.
Anyway, the quote is from the late Arthur Ashe. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe. The black tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Why do I mention that he was black, is that relevant? Well, yes, it is in this context. He grew up in a time of deeply ingrained not just ‘casual’ racism (not that racism is ever casual). A time of more overtly institutionalised racism, segregation et al. Does that mean the scourge of racism has been eradicated? Hardly, but we seem to be getting better at confronting entrenched racist attitudes and beliefs so perhaps I’d say Arthur Ashe lived with far greater challenges in that time period than if he had lived in this present time. Not only did his tennis career coincide with the battles he faced as he moved from amateur to professional, he also had to deal with being excluded from competitions and even courts, simply because he was black.
Despite this, he became the first player to win the US Open in the open era, and in 1975 he became the first black player to win Wimbledon. In that final he beat Jimmy Connors, who at the time was suing Ashe for comments made in his position as President of the new Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
As well as the obvious work that was needed to go in to winning grand slams in tennis, he was an activist who fought for several causes, AIDs, apartheid, education and segregation. He expected things to be the best they could, and if he felt that he could do something about it, he did. He spoke up and he spoke out. He didn’t just moan. He didn’t ignore. He stepped forward and he engaged. That’s why he was elected President of the ATP in its’ fledgling years. That’s why after two heart bypass operations he became chairman of the American Heart Association.
In 1992, Arthur Ashe revealed that he had contracted AIDS after a 1988 blood transfusion. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation, working to raise awareness, including making a speech to the UN General Assembly. Ashe died in Feb 1993 and later that year was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Bill Clinton.
So, I think it’s fair to say he achieved great things. He was prepared to put in the work to achieve things for himself, and he was prepared to stand up and be counted to achieve things for others.
If we look at his quote again though, I still think the quote works even better if you take away the beginning about achieving greatness. A lot of people don’t ever start towards their goals precisely because they think that goal achievement is unattainable or that greatness is something they are not capable of achieving or that it’s only for other people. Well, if you think of greatness as a ‘thing’ to be achieved then I guess it’s no wonder it seems out of reach! Life for me is not about striving to attain ‘greatness’ even though it is laudable for those who achieve it in some context or other. For me life is about developing a spirit if dynamism and indomitability in the face of all odds encountered. It’s about being as best as you can be in order to make life better and inspired for those who happen to pass through your sphere of influence or interaction, and ultimately for the person you can become; an incredible force for good.
It’s about developing the mindset of excellence not just for personal gain but for the greater and for the common good. If you could begin to get your head around this way of thinking then you realise that making excuses for not starting out in some way is never an option. Someone out there is praying for someone like you to happen to them, some opportunity is waiting out there for someone like you to grab it. So never let the fear of failure or inadequacy stop you from starting. If you have to then just simply accept that in life sometimes you may have to ‘fail’, stumble and hobble your way to success!
That’s why I think it helps to take the words about achieving greatness off the quote.
To achieve anything; start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
In the key areas of your life – health, wealth, career, relationships, lifestyle – do an honest assessment of where you are and where you’d like to be. Then ask what you already have and whether you’re using it properly, or at all. Then look at what you can do. Are you acting to the fullest of your current abilities. Do you appreciate or even realise your potential?
Have you been waiting for things to simply fall into place before starting? It could be that this has just led to a cycle of waiting endlessly when in all truth you could have used that time to start from where you were.
If you think you don’t have enough, then bear in mind that most people at the top of their field didn’t have enough when they started, but they started using what they had at the time. You can only build on what you have once you use what you already have. Sounds cliched but it’s a simple enough truth.
The same applies to the limits of what you can do. To progress means to push the limits of what you can do, but you won’t know what those actual limits are until you do what you can.
You might be amazed at just how much progress you can make if you adopt this mindset. It could turn out to be a revelation! Remember that the conscious brain will always underestimate the power and abilities of the subconscious brain, so to change our conscious beliefs about what we can achieve, it needs the conscious mind to decide to just try, and to persist with it
When it comes to helping others, ask the same questions. You might think that what you offer is not enough to make any difference. Well, instead of thinking, find out. Take action, and you might find that the efforts you can put in for others is exactly what they need.
Once you’ve taken action, the game changes. It always does, because it either brings progress or it brings about the knowledge that you may need to learn more or reach out for more help. This propels you forward to making progress. It might not feel like it if you do hit setbacks, which often happens but it still is progress. You just need to stick with it.
You might not achieve greatness in the often superficial way that the world defines greatness but you’ll achieve something that is defined by your courage, your individuality and your inspiration. That for me defines all that is great in a person rather than how others see or perceive you. If you don’t start it, if you don’t use it, if you don’t do it, then you won’t achieve it, talk less of anything. This is a choice. It’s your choice, and taking personal responsibility for our choices is one of the most powerful things we can do. It is an empowering attitude to have and it took me years of hard knocks and not facing up to realities to finally get me to a place where I learnt to become emboldened by my choices and to face up to them with a sense of resolution rather than fear. It didn’t mean I didn’t fail. In fact I failed more times than I care to recount that I almost looked stupid but I was always buoyed on by a sense of inspiration and conviction and that’s how I live to this day. I have learnt to be undaunted by stumbling blocks; mental or otherwise. If I need to have a good cry or a freaking rant then I do so for a brief spell and then dust the self-pity off and get on with it. I have learnt not to be a shrinking violet about anything that I am passionate or convicted about and that is the true me!
So, back to the quote. The quote works with or without mentioning greatness, which is why I like it so much, and so in the words of the late, and yes, great, Arthur Ashe – start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. After all, that’s the very least that you can do.
Don’t just be yourself, be your very best self!