The Key to Not Fulfilling Your Potential? Refuse Help

I wanted two things by the end of high school: to become a dominant player on the varsity tennis team and to earn admission to UC Berkeley.

My interest in tennis emerged when two of my friends who played it since middle school encouraged the rest of our friend group to pursue it for our high school sport, which if we did, we would fulfill our physical education course requirements.

Not surprisingly, those who never played the sport before did not make the team that first year. The two friends who played throughout middle school did though, and they promised to practice with the ones who did so we could improve and make the team next year.

I took them up on their offer and practiced everyday like it was a part-time job and I had bills to pay.

An Opportunity

Seeing how diligently I applied myself, my mom at some point offered tennis lessons, a chance to work with a professional to help me grow and improve. I replied to her offer by declining it, explaining to her that I didn’t want to waste her money.

When she asked if I wanted to sign up for SAT classes with my cousins, I also declined her offer as well, telling her that I would just buy an SAT prep book and study by myself. I felt such a good son saying that, but when I reflect back on those decisions now, I see a fool in my younger self.

I believe now that I was seduced by the prospect of fulfilling this narrative of being “self-made” in achieving my ambitions. I was constantly told that I was bright and smart all while growing up, and so I wanted to prove how true that really was. How? By “figuring things out on my own.” After all, if I could achieve everything without help, wouldn’t that prove just how talented, intelligent, and crafty I really am?

The Result

I did end up making the junior varsity team my second year, and during my third year, I was not only awarded “Most Improved Player,” but our junior varsity team also won the league championships. It looked like I was going to make varsity after all, and I did. But here’s what I didn’t expect.

Technically, I had made varsity, but anybody who stayed committed to the team was given a spot out of seniority and loyalty. But that didn’t mean I was given chances to play as a starting player. I was given multiple opportunities to prove myself, but every time I just floundered. It didn’t matter that I got along with every other doubles player on the team either (which was a problem since most of them bickered with each other). I ultimately never performed in the way I needed to to dominate, and I ended up spending my final year on the bench.

As for the SAT, I bought a preparation book longer than 500 pages and probably read and used 20 of it. On that front, doing it on my own apparently meant doing very little. I still took the test three times and made significant jumps each time, but I can only imagine how much more I would have improved if I actually prepared for it as diligently as I practiced for tennis. Maybe if I had a higher score, I might have been admitted to UC Berkeley, my original dream school.

Looking Back

If I could go back now, I would have taken those tennis lessons. And if I had taken those lessons, I’m sure I could have guessed what they would have focused on:

  • Physical conditioning and strength training
  • Improving the consistency of my first and second serves as well as their lethality
  • Switching to a two-handed backhand instead of my very weak one-handed one
  • Becoming a threat at the net where most points are won in doubles (or lost if you can’t perform)
  • Using a racquet more appropriate to my physicality and playing ability

I imagine if I had worked with the right tennis coach in additional lessons, I could have met someone who knew how to bring out the best in me while also overcoming the worst.

I now know it’s foolish to endeavor towards your goals on your own just so that you can say you did it on your own. In fact, the most successful and smartest people are the ones who not only ask for help, but know how to do it well. The ability to ask for help well is resourcefulness, and that in itself is its own talent and intelligence.

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