When I was a sophomore in college, I tried to do something I wasn’t sure I could do.
I decided to compete in the Brigade Open Boxing Tournament.
The Brigade Open is an annual event at West Point. It’s a chance for anyone to enter the ring and compete for a title belt. It’s open to all students, but the winners are almost always those on the boxing team.
So entering with very little experience and going up against legitimate national champions probably wasn’t the smartest idea.
I did it anyway.
It had nothing to do with winning - I didn't think I could - but everything to do with at least trying.
I made my commitment several months out from the first scheduled fight of the tournament and got to training.
This Might Work
Every night, after hours of class, drill, intramural sports and homework, I went up to the boxing room, by myself, to hit the heavy bag (like a Nike commercial, but less dramatic).
Every morning, I woke up at 5am to jump rope in sweats. It was exhausting, but the only way I stood a chance was to cut weight.
When the first fight came, I was trembling. I didn't feel ready. Even though I cut weight to be more competitive, my oponent was bigger than me. It seemed, at that moment, I had committed to nothing more than getting my face knocked in.
The bell rang and the fight started.
In the middle of the second round, the referee blew the whistle. A stoppage. The referee was concerned one of the boxers would end up seriously injured.
I won my first fight.
I was pumped.
The Reality of Winning
And then I realized what winning actually entailed.
If I had lost, I could go back to my regular routine. I could have given myself a pat on the back and still walked away proud for trying. I didn't think I could win anyway.
But now, by winning my first match, I had to fight another. And by trying to do something I wasn't sure I could do - and then doing better than I expected - I raised the bar for myself.
Now "who cares if I win or lose," turned into "I might actually be able to do this."
I trained harder.
The next fight came. Once again, I went up against someone who seemed my superior. I felt weak from cutting weight and training - maybe I overtrained. Once again, my chances didn't look good.
I entered the ring, the bell rang, the fight started, and the whistle blew two minutes later. Stoppage.
I won my second fight.
Somehow, against all odds, I would be competing for the championship belt at the finals.
For the first time, I knew there was a chance I could win.
The next fight was filmed by ESPNU with Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore commentating (a big deal in the boxing world).
The ring stood in the middle of a giant auditorium, professional spotlights hung from the ceilings, and spectators crowded the bleachers; the bar had been raised.
My fight was moments away.
Unlike my last two opponents, this guy was the real deal; he boxed on the West Point boxing team and was a serious contender for regional and national champion.
The only advice a friend could give me: knock him out in the first round.
He knew what I didn’t want to admit to myself: I wouldn’t last three rounds with this guy.
In the Arena
The fight started.
First round came and went – I landed some heavy hits. No knockout.
The only strategy I had was out the window.
The fallback plan: survive.
The second round tested my resolve and the sturdiness of my face. On more than one occasion the blows should have knocked me out. Somehow, I made it to the end of the round. Bloody, but not broken.
The third round delivered even more devastation. The referee came close to calling it but I wouldn’t stop pressing. I could have hung to the outside of the ring, but I knew that would give a reason to end the fight. Even though I took a beating, I kept pressing. The bell sounded and the fight ended.
I made it to the end of the third round. I finished the fight.
The next day, one of my teachers who watched the fight live sent me this quote in an email:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”Theodore Roosevelt
After the quote he wrote two words:
Anytime I’m nervous, or scared, or uncertain, or worried that something I do might not work, or what I write won’t resonate, or after months and years of passionate commitment my project won’t make it and I’ll be left with nothing…
Anytime I start thinking this way, I remember to keep fighting.
Because it’s better to be in the arena and fail, than a spectator who knows neither victory nor defeat.
I kept fighting.
My tenacity earned me a spot on the boxing team.
I won my first tournament later that year.
One thing Teddy Roosevelt forgot to add: victory tastes better when you’ve known defeat.
And so I urge you, those of you starting something new, doing something important, or chasing your vision quest:
It's not always easy. But it's worth it in the end.