The boxer made his good fortune matter both professionally and socially.
I’ve been reading about Muhammad Ali and remembering what an amazing person he was as an athlete and as a person. That’s what started me thinking about what we make of our lives, and how we build a life.
For the past couple of years, young people in commencement ceremonies this time of year have been hearing that what you need to succeed is grit, some combination of self-control and persistence. That’s true, but it’s just part of the formula for success in life.
Luck, help, work and a host of other factors matter, too. And we all get different measures of the traits that lead to whatever it is we might consider to be success.
I wondered how Ali’s life might have been different if his bike hadn’t been stolen, and if he hadn’t wanted revenge, and if a policeman hadn’t steered him to a boxing gym, and if he hadn’t been born with a body and mind suited to boxing. The string of what-ifs would be infinite. What if he hadn’t been handsome and witty?
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We don’t focus much on luck because we can’t control it and because when it applies to us in a favorable way, we tend to ignore it. A mix of good and bad fortune affects almost everyone.
I thought about Marshawn Lynch, who made a name for himself as a running back and as the heart of the Seattle Seahawks before his retirement this year. Besides his running, he was known for not running his mouth. That part of Ali isn’t part of Lynch’s makeup. Many in the media were as critical of Lynch for his silence as earlier writers had been of Ali for exercising his freedom of speech.
Ali seemed to have every gift a person could have, and in that he has few peers. Paul Robeson (activist, actor, athlete, lawyer, singer) might have impressed even Ali, but most people would be lucky to have one standout talent.
Lynch could play football. “I’m just ’bout that action, boss,” he told a journalist who asked about his silence. Enough said.
And while I was thinking about the breaks we get or don’t get, I got an email from Jodene Anicello, a woman I wrote about a decade ago. At the time she was trying to get a companion dog because her helper, Chewie, died.
Anicello is deaf, and her dog alerted her to sounds she couldn’t hear, like the doorbell or her alarm clock going off. She got a new companion, and her email was about a summer class in American Sign Language that she’s teaching at Cascadia College in Bothell, where she lives.
Teaching ASL fits her talents, and it allows her to introduce people not just to a new language, but to the culture of deaf Americans. It’s fulfilling work, and a sense of fulfillment is certainly part of any definition of success.
We are all subject to the vagaries of luck, but most of the time that is not enough to ensure either success or failure. All those other factors play a part, too. Anicello worked to get where she is, and so did Ali and Lynch.
I’ve read that Ali was the first person in the gym and the last one out. He sought out people who could give advice, and he used their advice. He kept himself healthy and made his priorities fit his goals.
But for millions of people, including me, Ali mattered most because he went beyond success in the field that fit his talents, and he even risked that success by speaking up against racial inequality and for religious freedom, and by refusing to sign up for the Vietnam War.
When I was a kid and being taught by my family not to say or do anything that would upset white folks, I marveled at Ali’s ability to speak his mind fearlessly. Watching him was a vicarious pleasure that grew into an example to follow, though in a more moderate way.
Having a social compass and living by it is also a measure of success. We’re lucky to have people like that using their blessings in ways that benefit the rest of us.