I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where wrestling was a tradition for many families, mine included. From generation to generation, from older brother to younger, wrestling has flowed through my veins and those of my brothers and cousins since we were able to push aside the furniture and go at it in the living room.
I loved the sport and found some success. But while I can’t boast of a state championship or All-American status to my name, I carry with me a frame of reference for life that I gained in wrestling and that has stuck with me to this day, more than 22 years and half a lifetime since my last college wrestling match.
Here’s what wrestling taught me about life.
Work matters: In wrestling, the amount of work put into it comes out in the level of success you earn. It is perhaps the most meritocratic sport, where intensity, focus, and drive combined with love, commitment, and pride yield success. To this day, I know that any success I have in my life stems from that simple recipe. I share with my kids nearly every day this truth: if you want something in life, take action, and do twice as much as the next person to get it.
Run to the middle: My dad is a man of few words, but his advice on wrestling is something that I think of every single day. In wrestling, when the wrestlers go out of the circle, the referee stops the action and brings the wrestlers back to the center to re-start the match. “When that happens,” my dad would say, “run back to the middle. Even if you are losing 14 to nothing. Show the other guy that you are ready to start winning.” While I haven’t put on a singlet in more than 20 years, I still subscribe to the same philosophy: even when losing, run back, do it again, and start winning.
Win in the last period: Wrestling coaches are known for their gruff but authentic approaches. One coach, who came to understand my limited talent as an athlete, told me that my best chance for success in the sport was to try to keep the score close in the first two periods and score my winning points in the third, final period when the other guy got tired. “Do the extra work so you are in better shape than your opponent so you can win in the final period,” he told me.
Winning in the third period is something I have seen to be true throughout my life. I make a point of getting up crazy early in the morning, before anyone else I know, and working. I take pride in knowing that I will win in the last period. This is one reason I work every single day of the year.
Emotions fuel the intensity: Whenever I want to work harder—or later or earlier—I put on headphones and listen to the final fight in Rocky I. I know it’s a cliché for a middle-aged guy to reflect on Rocky’s glory, but for me, even as a 44-year-old, I am Rocky, and today is the championship. Listening to Rocky fighting against all odds fires me up. Perhaps just as importantly, I know what I am up against. My calling is to be of service to those advancing education and, subsequently, help all children, including and especially our most vulnerable children. That is what I think about when I am tired, and that is what keeps me racing back to the middle.
You have to be out there: I have long thought that nothing is better at building character than high school wrestling. It takes a lot for a 15-year-old kid to put himself in a skin-tight singlet and tights and go to the middle of a gym floor—with friends and family members in the bleachers—and physically take on another kid in the same situation. I remember being scared to death then, just as I get scared to death now about other things.
To this day, when I walk to the podium while speaking at a conference, do an interview with a reporter, or pitch my services to a new client—things I have done hundreds if not thousands of times in the past—I am a freshman in high school getting ready to do battle for my school, my family, and myself.
It’s about the relationships: The truth is, I was a late bloomer in many ways. I did not aspire to go to college like so many other kids my age. In fact, when I was in high school, I didn’t know what I would become.
When I was 12, I got to know an outstanding wrestler just a few years older than me, a blonde-haired kid from a bigger school not too far away. I followed that kid from the YMCA program where we wrestled together all the way to college where we both wrestled at the NCAA D3 level. He was very good and had a lot of success at the high school and collegiate level; I was mediocre at best.
And now, when I see my friend, Dr. Luke Francois, a successful superintendent in Wisconsin, a smile and a nod is all that is needed to remind us of all of the matches, all of the practices, all of the bus rides, and all of the pre-match rituals and prayers over two wrestling careers.
Now that we’ve grown up, the arena is different, but Luke’s intensity, passion, and focus are all the same for the kids he serves. To see the success that Luke is having is no less inspiring than seeing him win matches so long ago. Often, when I am working late or early, I have a strong notion that Luke is doing the same.
A few months ago, one of my kids got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, found me working, and asked a question that left me thinking. “Dad, would you continue to work as you do if someone gave you $10 million dollars?”
I responded without thinking. “Yes, I hope to never stop working the way I do. No matter what.” I guess in my heart, I hope that third period never ends.