One of life’s greatest lessons isn’t about you, it’s about those who shaped you

by Tom Koulopoulos

One of life's greatest lessons isn't about you, it's about those who shaped youI’d like to tell you a story. Stick with me. I promise it will be worth it and will forever change the way you think about your success in life and in business.

My high school sport was wrestling. It suited my personality of being both a team player and a fierce individual competitor. It’s one of the most exhausting and emotionally demanding sports. You have no choice but to put every ounce of energy and concentration into what you’re doing because your opponent is doing the same. For three two-minute periods there is no place to hide, no time to take a breath; every second is as intense as the last. In short, total physical and mental focus.

I was not an extraordinary wrestler. The vast majority of my opponents had more experience and were usually much larger. Even though I weighed in at 225 pounds, more than once I ended up under the crushing weight of a 275-pound opponent to the point of blacking out. Yes, to keep things fair, they do have weight classes in wrestling, but I was in the unlimited class. Trust me, upward of 250 pounds it’s like talking about wind-chill factor when the temperature is already 20 below zero — it just doesn’t matter any more.

Bridge!

However, I had a coach who refused to throw in the towel. Coach LeVasseur didn’t know the meaning of giving up. As I was verging on passing out he’d cup his hands to his mouth and scream at me “Bridge!,” a move you use when your back is against the mats, with your opponent on top. You arch your entire body, suspended by your feet and the back of your head. It’s a last-ditch effort to stave off being pinned–the equivalent of a knockout in boxing.

“…it wasn’t so much about winning as it was about not conceding defeat easily, about accepting that sometimes the best you can do is fight like hell and accept it gracefully.”

The lessons I learned from those years stuck with me in so many ways. The notion that going back, meet after meet, to give it my all was everything; it wasn’t so much about winning as it was about not conceding defeat easily, about accepting that sometimes the best you can do is fight like hell and accept it gracefully. Good lesson, but not the most important lesson. That one would come about 35 years later.

A voice from the past.

My son, Adam, had taken up wrestling when he was 12. I was proud to see him learning the same lessons I had learned. Halfway through Adam’s first season he came down with a nasty flu. I made a midnight run to pick up some meds for him. It was the middle of December and the only 24/7 pharmacy was empty and just happened to be one I didn’t frequent often. As I walked in I heard someone call out my name from behind me. I hadn’t seen coach LeVasseur for 35 years and yet that voice was unmistakable.

“Coach Lev?,” I said, with a sense of disbelief. We shook hands and I reached out to give him a hug. I thought to myself, “Had he always been shorter than me?” We chatted for a bit and I remembered that he had twin daughters who were his pride and joy. He’d talk about them endlessly during our brutal workouts. It was this odd mix of drill sergeant and devoted dad that made Lev so endearing. I asked how they were. His look changed suddenly. I could see the face that had always been lit by a fire of deep passion and caring turn to sorrow.

He looked me in square in the eyes, “We lost Elise in a car accident years ago.” My heart sank to the floor. What could I possibly say? I struggled to find something comforting. I told him I was sorry, that I remembered how often he’d talk about both of his daughters. He thanked me but the sadness cut through me. The whole time his eyes never glanced away. Coach Lev always looked you in the eyes.

It was at that moment when I realized that in more than 35 years I had never thanked him. I had thought about how I attributed so much of my success to him and that mental image of his booming voice yelling “Bridge!” whenever I’d feel the crushing weight of competitors, naysayers, and life’s many challenges trying to pin my shoulders to the mats.

“I had kept my gratitude locked up inside, as though it were a museum piece, rather than giving it back to its rightful owner.”

I said the only thing I could think of: “You know, Coach, I should have told you this a long time ago but I owe you so much for what you taught me, what you taught so many of us. I’m grateful for that, always will be. You touched countless lives. Thank you.”

The experience felt surreal. The timing of it, with Adam having just started wrestling, my own life in limbo after having sold my business, the contrast to the joy of the season, and the chance one-in-a-million encounter.

But what struck me most was the realization and the shame of not having thanked Coach Lev earlier. I had kept my gratitude locked up inside, as though it were a museum piece, rather than giving it back to its rightful owner.

The gratitude challenge.

As I drove home I started going down the long list of other people who had shaped me: my junior high gym teacher, who didn’t give up on a very overweight 13-year-old until he could run a seven minute mile; the college professor who started me on my tech career; my first boss, who helped me start my first business by letting me use his office space and equipment for a full year; mentors, friends, relatives; so many people I owed so much to and yet had never expressed gratitude to directly.

So, are you getting the lesson yet? Yes, it’s a simple one, gratitude: showing it, saying it, and sharing it.

Since that chance encounter I’ve tried to take some time out every few days to tell someone I’m grateful for what they’ve done to help me personally and professionally. Trust me, it’s a list that never ends — not for any of us.

If you’re successful, driven, confident, it’s because people believed in you when you likely didn’t believe in yourself.

So, for the next 30 days, do something transformational: I call it the Gratitude Challenge. Make a list of 30 people you are grateful to and each day send a short note/email/txt — heck, maybe even an actual call — to each of them. No need for great eloquence. Say it simply and directly. Start today, right now, as soon as you’re done reading this. The great irony in life is that we most often fail to recognize and thank those closest to us, the ones who have shaped us most. We carry that gratitude inside of us but rarely express it directly to them. And guess what? You need to hear yourself say it.

At the end of 30 days I guarantee you that two things will happen: you will never again underestimate the power of expressing simple gratitude, and you will find many more opportunities to pay it forward. And that will forever change the way you live your life and run your business.

As for coach Lev, I found out that just a few months after losing his daughter, he took on the then-vacant position of coaching the girls’ varsity track and field team, taking it from one of the worst teams in the state to one of the most successful. After 35 years he was still coaching me on how to be grateful.

So, what are you waiting for?

This article was originally published on Inc.

Free Experiment Canvas

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

Leave a Reply