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I felt the power of belief in one magical minute and it changed me forever
#managing_yourself Someone believed in me when I didn't believe in myself, and all it took was 60 seconds to change my life
Like many geeks growing up, I dealt with a fair share of bullying. By the time I was 14, I'd experienced it all. Luckily for me, I became a big kid, and as my size and mass increased, I was able to fight off most of my agitators - losing most of my front teeth along the way. Life was better as I entered high school, but my insular nature and my preference to choose who I spend time with, often preferring solitude at school, made me an outsider. I had my computer friends that I met in the lab, my Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) friends, and a crew I played basketball with after school - but for the most part, I existed on the fringes of high school society. My physicality scared off most people from starting fights, but I still suffered a fair bit of teasing every day.
One day during the fall of my freshman year, the physical education teacher covered the basics of wrestling. I'd been a fan of pro wrestling, and especially one of their stars Hulk Hogan, so I had thought this would be similar. I envisioned being able to atomic drop all the mean kids in class and not get in trouble for it. Alas, it turned out real wrestling had nothing to do with it. Still, compared to the random kids in class, I appeared to have some natural skills thanks to all of the ad-hoc training I'd endured throughout my life to date. The teacher, who also coached the wrestling team, encouraged me to try out for the team.
As a decidedly unathletic person, tall, a bit on the heavy side, and perenially out of shape, I never imagined being good enough to play a sport on any team. I think all of us geeky kids tell ourselves a story that we don't want to be mainstream, but deep down, I know I did. Could I be mainstream and become popular?
With some trepidation, I showed up to tryouts and walked-on. It turns out, 175 lb kids between the age of 14 and 18 were pretty rare. My dreams of being the Hulk Hogan of my high school began - but were dashed after the first practice. As I painfully learned, wrestling required more than just brawling. Speed, strength, ability to function at peak heart rate were critical. Unlike the fights I was used to, which end in less than 5 minutes, a typical match was 15 minutes. Wrestling was much harder than I thought it would be, it was nothing like pro wrestling, and day after day I was getting leveled.
My training partners were Alex and Desi, 189 lb, and 215 lb class, respectively. I didn't know Desi well, but Alex was a known entity to me. We had a few classes together, and he was always teasing me - and great at it. His taunts were so witty and often funny at my expense that I couldn't help but laugh too. However, enduring his verbal abuse for hours every day wore on me psychologically. Because I was the worst wrestler on the team, the team ostracised me. Those days were hard, and it made my early high school days even harder.
(Left to right: Alex, me, and Desi)
Wrestling is both an individual sport, as well as a team sport. Individuals win matches based on points scored within a set time. Specific events in the match, such as a takedown or a reversal earn points. However, just like pro wrestling, you can win a match by pinfall regardless of the point total. Winning by pinfall is the most dramatic way to win a match. To pull off a pin, you have to neutralize the opponent completely for a full-second with their shoulders on the mat.
I became very familiar with getting pinned because I was getting pinned in almost all of my matches. Progress for me was losing without getting pinned. My parents never attended my matches, nor did my friends. I told myself I was okay with it because I'd embarrass myself, but deep down, I wished someone would root for me. Despite it all, I stayed on the team.
My worst outing was the 41st match. As soon as the whistle blew, I lost by pinfall again. It turned out, the match lasted a mere 1.5 seconds, and as a result, I helped my opponent set a county record. The story even made the local newspaper the next morning with my name in the papers as the loser. It’s been more than 30 years since that day, and the fastest pinfall I can find on the Internet happened in 3 seconds. The ridicule I received at school the next day was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Still, I soldiered on because there was only one more match to go.
In the final match of the season, I found myself curiously relaxed, and on this day, it appeared that I would escape without losing by pinfall. The spectators were unrelenting during the match and ridiculed me due to the match before, but with a minute left, I found myself in a familiar place - on my back and fighting for dignity.
As my opponent squeezed my chest, I felt all of the oxygen escape, and my vision started to go dark as it sometimes did during these times. The jeers of the crowd and the laughter of my teammates echoed in my ears. I was crestfallen. As my shoulders started to sag to the mat, I heard someone cheering me on.
It was Alex. I turned my head slightly and saw Alex on his hands and knees, pounding the mat, urging me not to give up. I was confused but suddenly inspired. If Alex still believed in me during this darkest of moments, I need to believe in myself, and so I kicked, I squirmed. I told myself that I would not lose by pinfall no matter what. When I broke free, I saw an opening, pulled a reversal, and managed to slip a half-nelson and cranked my opponent onto his back. With less than 5 seconds to go, I won by pinfall. I won, but importantly, I started to believe that I could win, even with no time to spare, even when I had never won a match before.
(Me pulling off my incredible comeback victory)
As I stood up, there was stunned silence except for Alex, who appeared as thrilled as I was. The referee raised my arm in victory and the whole moment felt like a dream. I hugged Alex, and he patted me on the butt.
I went on to wrestle for two and a half more seasons. In time, I learned that I was much better on the ground than upright. Critically, I learned that at the level of my competition, whether or not I got pinned had more to do with my willingness to resist. While I never got to be great at the sport, my ability to withstand losses by pinfall and hence reduce the number of points lost for the team came in handy for my coach. When Alex and Desi could not make weight, I would frequently substitute for them, giving up as much as 35 lbs. I never became Hulk Hogan of my high school, but I felt included on the team.
(Me at a 35lb weight disadvantage)
That magical minute in my life would have a profound influence on me. Alex's act of kindness reframed how I thought about people at school and also a world where it's not always easy to fit in.
On the day of high school graduation, I wistfully walked by a corner of the campus where I had lunch every day alone for four years. In big chalk words, it said: "SQUISH WAS HERE." I smiled, thinking about Alex. Alex invented the name for me because I flopped on the wrestling mat like a fish and had the weak arms of a squid. What I initially viewed as ridicule, I eventually reframed as a term of endearment. Were people as mean as they were, or were they just trying to get to know me?
Perhaps the most important lesson of all I learned in those years was the power of belief.
We all have people in our lives who believe in us, and when your back is against the mat, those are the most important times to remember this fact. If there are people who believe in you, why can't you believe in yourself? They are going to the mat with you, so get up.
A corollary is that we all possess incredible power, and that is, we can believe in the potential of others. The modern business world obsesses with performance which is a lagging indicator. In the long run, it's the potential of individuals inside a company that makes all the difference. While we fashion ourselves as adults, the reality is that work is often not all that different from high school, and if we're really honest, those feelings of being an imposter or otherwise inadequate and alone haunt many of us. Work is full of cliques, gossip, and I've even seen teasing behind people's backs because they are unique. It is here that we have an opportunity to identify the potential of our colleagues and lift them by genuinely believing in who they could be. Perhaps in doing so, you could be someone's Alex and give them a magical minute and maybe, change the course of their career or their life. Perhaps, they could even be the next Hulk Hogan.