The date was September 13, 2005, and my good friend Big Dave and I were out for a few "quiet" drinks and to catch some NFL games, before Fresher's Week started the following day. Big Dave and I, especially in those days, didn't do anything quietly! So we headed into Glasgow city centre and to Campus, a large American frat house-themed pub, with big screens everywhere and a selection of refreshing beverages on offer.
Like many great nights, it started with plans to take it easy, because we knew there was a busy week of late nights ahead. Both Dave and I were freshers helpers for the various student bodies across the University of Glasgow, so we had our work cut out shepherding the fresh-faced new arrivals around campus during the day, and then showing them how to party at night. Also like many great nights, taking it easy didn't happen, and we ended up somewhat worse for wear (as the photo of Dave below, will confirm) and out until closing time. Now 2005 was a time before the ubiquity of smart phones, and certainly before the cameras built into them offered any kind of decent resolution, but luckily I didn't go far in those days without my trusty Canon Ixus 500. There are a number of photos from that night, most of which do not need to be shared, but there's one which I've looked back at over the years because it captures a moment that seemed innocuous at the time, but has gone on to hold great significance in my life.
The walls of Campus were covered with photos, signs and other tat that you'd expect, most of which fades into the background of memories, but at the top of the large wooden staircase, there was a black and white photo of a man I didn't know, with a quote I'd never heard. Dave and I, despite being somewhat "tired and emotional", spotted it at the same time and through the haze caused by pints of Diesel, we paused momentarily and I took the below photo of Dave, to capture what we'd found.
This is one of many examples of my world-class photography skills in action, so both the quote and the quotee are obscured by the flash! It read:
"To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift" - Steve Prefontaine
In the UK, Steve Prefontaine, known as Pre, is not a widely known sports figure. He was an American middle and long-distance runner whose life was cut tragically short in a car accident aged only 24, but he was hugely accomplished already by that time. He held American records for every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 metres (that encompassed 2K, 3K, 2 mile, 3 mile, 5K, 6 mile and 10K!) in preparation for the 1976 Olympics which he never lived to compete in.
Pre studied and ran at the University of Oregon, under coach Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of a company called Blue Ribbon Sports, which began as an importer of Onitsuka Tiger running shoes and went on to design and manufacture it's own shoes under its new name of Nike. Steve Prefontaine became their first ever sponsored track athlete. To this day, Nike have erected only one statue of a sponsored athlete and that statue of Pre stands at their Oregon Headquarters.
The quote shared above is particularly powerful when you consider the style of running that Pre became famed for. Unlike many middle distance runners, who sit in the pack and manage the race, before breaking for the finish line, Pre came off the starting line with intent. He went out to give everything he had from the beginning and if you wanted to beat him, you had to be willing to dig deep inside yourself to do so. He was quoted as saying "No one will ever win a 5,000 meter race by running an easy first two miles. Not against me" and "I am going to work so that it's a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I'm the only one that can win it". That grit and determination really appeals to me!
When I first read the quote on the poster, I'd recently graduated and begun a one-year sabbatical as a student officer at the University. From there, I moved to Edinburgh and a graduate scheme in financial services, which was not a roaring success. It had high points but ultimately, I was trying too hard to be someone I wasn't. To put this into context, I like to visualise my skills and capabilities like an old school graphic equaliser on my dad's stereo. There are some skills which are right at the bottom (working alone, in high detail projects), some near the top (coaching, facilitating, speaking, inspiring) and a lot in the middle. In those early days, I'd somehow got into my head that a recipe for success was to focus on the sliders at the bottom and move them up a bit. Be a good generalist. A bit of everything. Nowadays I recognise that this approach is a fast track to mediocrity.
We all have gifts. Not all of us have a huge list of them, like those sickeningly talented people we see on social medial who can play forty instruments, speak fluently in every language on earth, play every sport to a professional level and fly through he air unaided, but each one of us has a handful of things that we can do really well. Sure - find the things you're really not good at, and do some work to bring those up to a level where they're not going to catch you out or leave you exposed, but beyond that, fill those gaps by finding people in your circle of trust for whom those are their gifts. Focus on what you're good at and double down on it. Find more opportunities to deploy these skills and blow people away!
Then came a second graduate scheme where I began leading teams. Slowly, I started to find ways to do more of what I was good at. And this was the point where the magic of Pre's quote begun to resonate. Spending my days in spreadsheets is not me doing my best. It's not sharing my gifts. Where are the jobs and opportunities that let me use them?
When it comes to our home lives, it's really important that we do the things that need done; not just the things we're good at. When you are a parent, you have a child to raise who relies upon you. Not doing things because they don't come naturally doesn't cut it - if you're not good at helping with homework, it's time to get good. If you're not good at changing a nappy, it's time to get good. Don't accept excuses from yourself, because your little one deserves the best of you.
But professionally, it's important to recognise that we have a wider degree of freedom. You don't have to do the job you're currently in. You don't have to work for your current company. And it's important not to make excuses and pretend you do. Take a notebook, find a fresh page and your favourite pen. Draw a line down the middle of the page and on the left write all of the things you've done professionally that you love and have a gift for. On the right, write down all of the things that you really do not love and aren't good at. Every time you consider a new opportunity or look beyond your current circumstances, find things that move you closer to column A and further from column B. Give your best, don't sacrifice the gift.