Doing What It Takes: A Story

When you look up and see your own child at some distance away, standing at the very edge of a high place over a drop off that falls into deep water, your heart starts pounding in your ears, and you feel the adrenalin rush.  Almost every parent, for one reason or another, understands that anxious feeling!

Well, he was fine.  He was okay.  As it turned out it was no real danger at all; it was just a swim meet.  But my heart was pounding just the same – parents get excited about that sort of thing, don’t we?  We get excited because we actually watch our children face challenges,  and see first hand how winning or losing effects their attitude.

We had talked a lot at home with our children about setting goals, and some of the necessary action steps we need to take in order to meet them.  But that day when I arrived to watch a county swim meet, I was completely unaware that I was about to learn how the combination of attitude, activity and results are so cleverly intertwined, and inter-dependent.

Remember when we fell behind in school, our teachers would remind us we needed to “bring up our average”?  But so many of us really didn’t understand what exactly was required to do it.  My son showed me what was required.  He showed me by doing something I’d told him to do, without ever making it a habit to do so myself.  That was over twenty years ago, but because what I learned was so clear, I think about it all the time as if it were yesterday.

Among other sports, organizations and activities, all three of my sons were on the swim team in junior high and high school.  They only swam for the school during swim season, and not involved in any year-round swim program.  But some others were, and one boy in particular was a pre-Olympic qualifier.  His name was Bobby.  During my oldest son, David’s senior year, Bobby swam for David’s team’s chief rival.

On that day in the free style relay, I saw them lined up on the block right next to each other.  Leading off for his school, was poised my son David, one of the better swimmers in the county.  And right beside him leading off for his top rival was Bobby, one of the better swimmers in the western hemisphere.

Everybody, and I mean everybody there including me, knew my son David was not going to out-swim Bobby in that event.  Oh, there was a good chance that my son’s relay team would come in second, but we all were certain that Bobby’s team would place first.

At the signal, seven swimmers representing seven schools hit the water.  My son swam well, and I was proud of him, but exactly as predicted, he was second to Bobby in the first leg of the heat, and though it was close, David’s team came in second overall.

My wife and I sat there watching him across the room.  He was talking with his coach.  Then David looked up directly at us, and started heading over towards us in the bleachers.  When he got right in front of me, he just stood there for a moment with a towel around him, and I could tell he was thinking about something; thinking what to say.  I thought I already knew what he was going to say.  I was preparing to hear all the regular excuses, such as:

“I got a bad start off the block.  I messed up my stroke.  I missed my breathing rhythm and took in some water.  I made a bad flip-turn.  I misgauged my distance coming to the touchpad.”

But David didn’t say any of those things.  What he said to me was:

“Hey Dad, I got my time.  I more than beat my average time – I beat my best!  And I’m only nineteen one hundredths of a second away from making the cut for the state swim meet!  And I’ll beat that easy by the finals!”

You should have seen the smile on his face.  And, on mine, realizing that this teenage boy knew something very well that had taken me over four decades to figure out.  It didn’t make the six O’clock news, but it was the best thing that happened to my son that day, and to me.  You see, both of us were validated by the realization of a goal.

Sometimes you say something, and someone you care about listens, then acts on what you said.  And when it works…how powerful is that?  Yet as powerful as the moment was for me, and feeling very impacted by it, the faint question in the back of my mind was:

Will he remember the blueprint he used that day to continue to build those kinds of precious moments for the rest of his life?

Some of you might be waiting to hear how David came back in the finals to beat Bobby by a split-second.  Some Horatio Alger or Tortoise and the Hare story?   Attainable?  Yes.  Realistic?  No.  There was already a huge divide between their habits of practice, and a huge divide between what they both had already taught themselves to believe.

That day at the pool, however, my son David did have a goal.  He was reaching for a higher mark than he had ever reached or even tried to reach before.  And it was something he believed he could get.  Not to win the swim meet, or even beat Bobby, but instead, the goal was to qualify for state.  And by the way, he made the cut.

I believe you should set high goals for yourself, to push yourself, and go after your dreams.  But don’t set goals you don’t believe you have a chance of reaching, because if you think you can’t, you aren’t even likely to try.  You won’t shoot for the stars if you don’t believe you can get off the ground.

As a boy, I remember helping Granddaddy paint the outside of his house.  As I started up the ladder to the top of the second story, Granddaddy asked:

“Are you gonna be able to make it all the way up there?”

I answered:  “I’ll go as far as I can.”

Granddaddy came back with:

“You’ll go as far as you think you can.”

Years later, I heard my friend Chuck Russell speaking to a group, and he said:

“Nobody climbs up a ladder even one rung higher than they think they can go without falling.”

That’s what Granddaddy was talking about.  Now, I call that the freezing point.  And when you thaw out, if you thaw out, you’ll slowly start coming down to a place where you’re comfortable, and feel safe.

It’s the believing what you can do, or what you cannot do that makes all the difference in the world about what you’ll even try.  And by that, you will never get past that freezing point until you believe you can.  Believing is very powerful.

In a 1941 animated film produced by Walt Disney, Dumbo the Elephant could fly.  But he would never try until he believed.  For a long time, he believed in the magic feather which was just a trick played on his mind by a group of crows and a hapless mouse.  The feather never did have a bit of magic in it.  The magic was in the believing.

Eventually, Dumbo lost his grip on the feather, which was very frightening at first.  Up ’til then, he’d believed solely in the feather, even though there was no real power in it.  But with the feather gone, he now had to believe in something else, something real that was a part of himself.  He did, and that’s what saved him.

By the way, for those of you who will remember, what Dumbo believed became obvious by the course of actions he took, and not by anything he said he’d do, or even by anything he said he believed.  As a matter of fact, at no time in the story did he ever say a single word…out loud.  Elephants can’t talk, that’s impossible!

Impossible is a concept.  It cannot exist in you as an idea unless you believe something to be impossible.  While it may be impossibility in fact, it will not be the fact, but the thinking it is that will keep you from trying.

That’s the real point of the story about my son, David, at the swim meet.  Sure, there was something he thought was impossible.  But there was also something he believed he could get, and wanted bad enough to do what it takes to get it.  He knew it was not going to be good enough to just keep doing what he had been doing, because his average wasn’t good enough. Neither was his best.  So, not just to do the best he can, but to simply do what it takes.

And what it took was to make it a habit and a practice to every single day, work on incrementally improving his average to get well within reach of his best, and beat it.

I’m sure most of you remember hearing something Sir Winston Churchill once said:

“Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

But do you know why he said it?  Because up ‘til then, the best they had done had not been good enough to stop the advancing Army of the Third Reich.

How many of you before this month is over, will say to someone almost out of habit:

“That’s okay, you did the best you could, and that’s all anyone can expect of you.”

Well, quit saying that!  It’s not true.

Look at it this way: If you’re alone in a rowboat that sinks in the middle of a lake, and you drown trying to swim to shore, no one will doubt that you tried hard, and with great empathy might believe you did the best you could.  But nobody, not one person that really cared about you will even for a minute think those efforts were good enough.

Earlier I told you a story about a boy who beat his best, but he didn’t win the swim meet.  He beat his best, but didn’t get first place.  So, he didn’t win.  Didn’t he?

Some years later while still in graduate school, David accepted a teaching assignment in Special Education.  In so many cases, he was teaching children that everybody, including the parents, had given up on.  He was told the children on his list were not likely to learn very much, and that as a group, little was to be expected of them.  It was as if he should just supervise their behavior so that they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

But David saw the challenge differently.  As he got to know the children, be began to believe in some of them.  And because he did when nobody ever had before, they started believing in him, too.  Since David was just starting out, and not yet even a certified teacher, he was given a provisional certificate.

With such credentials as that, added to a burning passion in his gut to want to do the right thing for those children, averages started to improve; someone was raising the bar.  It was noted, and his principal and peers named him as the: “Teacher of the Year”!

After hearing this, his youngest brother said:

“That’s pretty cool!  My brother got teacher of the year on a learner’s permit!”

Now all of a sudden I’m remembering back.  What kept ringing in my head were words like:

“Hey Dad, I beat my average, and I beat my best, and my goal is so close I can taste it!”

He remembered.  He learned.  It was his attitude.  It drove his actions.  His activity generated his results.  His results kept driving his attitude higher, and higher and higher!

Only those who believe they can, will bother to make a habit of incrementally beating their average. And it stands to reason, if they do, sooner or later they’ll beat their best.  You see, it raises the bar automatically every time you bump that average up.  And it’s always within your believable reach, never frozen in the fear of the unreachable.

I won’t take the time here to tell you about David’s two brothers.  But I’ll close this segment by saying I’m very proud that all three of my sons are the kind of men who’ve had some notable experiences with beating their average and even beating their best.   And by recognizing what is required to do it, they all have some clear understanding of what it takes to…

 Reach For Their Dreams.


art & graphic design by

© Talent Management, Inc.  All rights reserved.


18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Terry Smith on February 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Van, I’m very moved by reading this. At this moment I’m sitting in my car waiting on my son. He is trying out for a scholarship with Bellarmine University’s Division 2 soccer team. I wish I had this to let him read on our trip there this morning, as it so very much applies. His coaches and I know he can do it, now will his attitude allow him show it. Thanks again, it always makes me very proud to have you for a friend, when I get to read your writtings.


  2. Posted by Andy on February 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Excellent Van! Life is full of lessons. My sons have taught me a few. I hope the ones I taught them will prove to be valuable to them.


  3. Posted by Mickey Foster on February 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    as both the bar and the effort increase not hard to bump up the goal…well written and congratulations to your sons and to you for giving them to oomph…..


  4. Posted by Helen on February 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    I like your sons. I like you, too. Yeah, Brenda.


  5. Family!!!


  6. Posted by me, too on February 17, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    family !!!!!


  7. Van, this is such a powerful piece for us parents coming along after you!
    It brings me back to my tennis days when I was a teenager ~ a hundred or so years ago ~ and meeting a really encouraging friend every Sunday. We’d talk about how the week’ s matches had gone and he always said with a smile: ‘If your best isn’t good enough, you’ll have to do better.’ They are words I remember very vividly this Sunday as I read your piece but what I remember more are the kind eyes and gentle smile that accompanied them.
    There is such a place for a balance between pushing and encouragement and I think you are one of the few who has achieved that with your strong sons.


  8. Posted by Marlene Humberd on February 17, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Wonderful piece , Van ! It’s nice to get a follow-up from your stories of their childhood . I think they’ve all remembered the lessons they were taught . Love the design work by another one of your talented sons ! Thank you … 🙂


  9. Posted by Bonnie Stewart on February 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I love this. And you. Wonderful !!!


  10. Authentic, honest and beautiful. Thanks for sharing.


  11. Van – if you want to know why your sons have become such exceptional men, simply look into a mirror. Thank you for a beautiful, heart-warming story. All the best, Lisa


  12. Posted by reamy Jansen on March 11, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Look at my poem, “Moss.” Just Google the poem’s title and my name-Reamy Jansen–and the poem will come up. Based on an incident that involved myself and my young son, Paul. Reamy


  13. Posted by susanscottsa on May 13, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Van, thank you so much! I think of my two sons who work hard and pursue their goals. All they know is that it is up to them and that their parents believe in their ability.
    Well done on David for being ‘teacher of the year’ on a learner’s permit! Reminds me of my younger son David who achieved honours for music in his matric year even though music was not one of his subjects!
    I needed to read this piece of yours at this time for my own self, so thank you again.


  14. Posted by betty on May 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Your granddaddy had a way, didn’t he? Your boys are lucky to have you!
    luv u


  15. Posted by Mickey Foster on June 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    read this before, enjoyed it then, re-read it…still a great well-written story…


  16. Posted by Gail on September 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    You painted pictures in my mind as I read the thoughts you shared. There is so much to consider when you think about the power of our minds and how the sub-conscious simple doesn’t take a joke…if you say you can’t, that’s true–but if you say you can–it is no longer impossible. Thanks for sharing!


  17. Posted by Tyler on March 3, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Great post, Van! Bravo.


  18. Posted by Betty on March 4, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Still very good ! luv u


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: