One of my Flint business colleagues gave me a copy of Imperfect: An Improbable Life, an autobiography of Jim Abbott. Because he grew up in my new hometown, I found the book to be very educational. For those of you who don’t know of him, Abbott is a famous baseball player who got his start as a star pitcher at Flint Central High School and the University of Michigan. He was a starting pitcher on the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning baseball team and he pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
After finishing the book and reflecting on Abbott’s life, I pondered what I could tell you about this remarkable man. I could focus on his mom and dad, who were teenage parents, or the cutthroat nature of professional baseball, or the painful process of determining when to end a professional career, or what it’s like to be the spouse of a professional athlete in the crosshairs of the media, or what a great job his young parents did raising him.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that Abbott was born without a right hand?
After a great deal of thought, I decided to share two lessons I learned from reading about Abbott’s life.
The first deals with his desire not to be thought of as different. If you see pictures of him in street clothes, he always has his right (hand) in his pocket, and looks like any other person you might walk past. He tells a story about a time he was being introduced as the speaker at an event. In his introductory comments, the well-intentioned master of ceremonies mentioned that Abbott was missing his right hand. As Abbott listened, he thought to himself, Why? Just let my accomplishments of a gold medal and a no-hitter stand for themselves.
The takeaway, for me, is that it’s important to be more sensitive to any labels or adjectives I use when telling my many stories. Is it really necessary to say things about a person’s height, or where they’re from, or what ethnic group they belong to, or to make observations that sound more like stereotypes? I felt convicted.
My hero on the subject of avoiding labels is my youngest son, Joey. He had a new roommate who I had not yet had a chance to meet. Joey often spoke about his roommate and, from everything he said, they seemed to really be a good match. Well, one day I finally met the roommate. Based on things my son had said when describing his roommate, I had been expecting that this young man was going to look a lot like our family. To my surprise, he wasn’t like us at all. I was proud of Joey’s ability to overlook the stereotypes that might have been placed on his roommate, and to instead focus on the person his roommate is.
The second lesson I gleaned from Abbott’s life is “deliberate practice,” a concept with which I am obsessed. Starting at 4 years old, Abbott would throw baseballs against a wall in his backyard for hours and hours. It was there, in his backyard, that he taught himself to switch his glove to his right arm so he could throw, and then return it to his left hand to catch the rebound. (The book includes some really cool stories of how Abbott overcame adversity and was able to field balls, including bunts, in the majors.)
Do you want to be successful at something? If you didn’t have a right hand, would you dare to set a goal of pitching a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in Yankee Stadium?