At no previous time in my life have I imagined that I would have anything to do with “national championships” of any kind.
I wasn’t born an athlete. I was the tiny, scrawny Asian kid. And then, a mischievous plumber somewhere in the cosmos flipped a switch and overnight I was the giant, fat white kid.
I also couldn’t be made an athlete. In hopes that I might grow muscles and lungs, I was enrolled on a local track and field team sometime during elementary school. This was after soccer had failed (I was on the field for exactly thirty seconds before a ball sailed into my groin, leaving me crying on the ground) and karate had failed (I went for just a handful of classes before telling my mom that getting beaten up in the sparring ring was not all that different from getting beaten up on the playground and we beat a hasty retreat shortly thereafter).
In track and field, I became so athletic that I never finished anything but last in a race (and most of the time didn’t finish at all). Instead, I became the star shot-putter. Shot put is the event you’ve seen for all of twenty or thirty seconds of Olympic airtime in your life in which a very fat, bearded man that looks like he could be called Sven Ragnarsson athletically heaves a very heavy steel ball just as far as he can heave it.
Usually the distance is measured in meters (no, not hundreds of meters), which—like the relative fame of the sport—says something about its impact on the world along with something about its status amongst enthusiasts of athletics and sport.
I tried to go out for football in high school, but with no previous football experience (my parents hadn’t trusted the safety of the sport until I was old enough to drive, which is of course far too old to start), I never saw the field, the locker room, or even tryouts. You know you’re not even destined to be the athletic (rather than, say, lumbering) fat man when the coach and your physical education instructor both warn you off of tryouts.
© Aron Hsiao / 2018
My body ultimately figured out how to make a few teaspoons of testosterone sometime mid-high school and by the end I was actually reasonably trim and quite strong, but “athletic” never replaced “lumbering” as the general qualifier that underlay my corporeality.
So—national championships? It was never even a dream. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken the phrase, in fact.
— § —
Well, until now.
This morning bright and reasonably early, the kids and I were in a parking garage underneath one of the larger and better known western United States convention centers, looking for a spot to park—for the 2018 United States national taekwondo championship tournament. The event has a home page on the Team USA website. You know, the one where all the Olympics teams are listed. In all the big sports.
Somehow my seven-year-old daughter avoided the curse of my lumbering genes and instead is a naturally talented, long, lean, and very enthusiastic athlete. One with an athlete identification lanyard that gets her into events at which there are dozens of “rings” and “judges” and “call times” and lots of pomp and circumstance, not to mention other things I never thought I’d ever directly touch, like the “weigh-ins” and “floor routines” we were working on today in anticipation of competition tomorrow.
She’s been doing this for nigh on three years now, and though I didn’t quite get this at first, I’ve come to realize that she’s a two-time defending state champion and gold medalist who’s currently ranked sixth nationally in her division. So it’s a thing. Like, a real thing.
Happily, she did get my “under pressure” genes, so she seems to delight in being stared down by an audience while doing things they’re not capable of doing. I eventually found a use for these genes in professoring and public speaking and later in media, but she’s managed to marry them to the infinitely more exclusive and exciting “gifted with athleticism and the right kind of body” genes to come up with something rather special at the moment.
And yet—though I say that I now finally “get it”—there’s a lumbering high schooler in me that continues to want to ask the dad me the age-old question (a thing I never thought that I, of all people, would be asked):
“How did she get where she is? What path did she take to get from beginner to serial gold medalist and national competitor? Tell us so that others who have the same dream know how to begin.”
— § —
It’s here that I point out that there are some lessons that you are destined to learn over and over again in life.
You learn them because you need them and because you’re capable enough that you can take them onboard. You learn them over and over again because something in your makeup or something in the way that you were raised makes them so foreign to the assumptions that you have about the world that your brain just erases them over and over again each time you look away for a moment.
Here’s the path.
There is no path.
Here’s the lesson.
To win in the big time, you have to play in the big time.
© Aron Hsiao / 2018
How did she prepare to win her first state championship? The honest answer is that she prepared by not paying all that much attention to it, and her dad prepared by not “getting” that it was a real thing. If dad had understood that it was the real Utah state championship event, sponsored by Team USA, he wouldn’t have paid the fees and signed her on up. Obviously, being just a year-and-a-half from nada-at-alla and just a junior color belt, rather than an experienced black belt, she wouldn’t have been ready.
Obviously, she would have needed to “start with something smaller” and gradually “plot a course” to move up, rather than jump right into a Team USA event.
And, in retrospect, obviously if she had taken that path, two things would now be very true:
She would not have a slew of medals and trophies, a national ranking, or an athlete badge for the 2018 United States national championship event.
She would not be anywhere as skilled or as developed as she has become over the last two years of pounding and grinding against others driven enough and confident enough to enter Team USA events.
To win in the big time, you have to play in the big time.
— § —
I knew this when I enrolled at the University of Utah at 15 years old. I became top of class in a top ten science department before I could drive. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and withdrew.
I knew it again when I took on a contract and an advance to write a book (something I’d never done before) on a topic I knew nothing about. I wrote it out in six months, the reviewers raved about it, university libraries all over the country put it on the stacks, and I went on to write six more. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and stopped submitting book proposals.
I knew again it when I jumped straight from my (very shaky, 10-year) undergraduate career (that almost didn’t result in graduation) to the University of Chicago graduate school. I earned my first graduate degree and perfect marks along the way. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and left academics for the world of publishing.
© Aron Hsiao / 2006
I knew it again when I flew to New York with just a couple hundred dollars to my name to start a Ph.D. program in a field I’d never studied before. I was made a university fellow before I was eligible to be nominated and was hired as an adjunct professor at a nearby major university before I had achieved candidacy. Others were invested in the importance of my work and ideas before I could even properly articulate what they were. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and moved back to Utah to finish my Ph.D. in isolation, where it now languishes on a top shelf in a market where it holds no value.
I knew it again when I took a job with seniority and a title with which I had no previous experience. I produced work that caused co-workers to tell me that I was the heart of—or the lynchpin of—or the voice of—or the smartest person in—the company. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life, became conservative in my approach, failed to assert myself when I should have over time and to do what I could have over time for reasons of propriety and judiciousness, and the company was unceremoniously acquired rather than eventually traded publicly.
I suspect that a lot of people have stories like these. Probably a similarly long list of them. We all made the same mistake, suffered from the same misapprehension.
Why was I allowed to start all these things—enter all of these rarefied spaces and roles that I was eminently unqualified for? Pretty simple, actually. I applied. I asked. Just like my daughter, when she entered that first state championship tournament, cold, having never competed in taekwondo before.
— § —
There’s a very important corollary that follows from the lesson.
There is no ‘path’ from the small time to the big time.
It’s that simple, really. Play in the small time, stay in the small time, no matter how much you win. Want to win in the ‘big time?’ Begin and stay in the big time, no matter how unqualified you are. Over and over again I learn and know this and it begins to pay off. Over and over again, I forget it and drive right back into the ditch of forgettable middle-class mediocrity.
This is a class thing. Middle and lower, mostly. And a Protestant thing. And probably a few other kinds of things as well. At the core of the failure to learn this lesson—underneath every unnecessary reversion away from greatness and back to shadows—is the unhelpful belief that you simply don’t deserve to win—or even to enter into—the big time just yet. It’s always ‘just yet.’ We at the bottom, we just don’t aim for the top.
Because there are others more qualified than you. You’ve only just begun and you’ve started so humbly, with nobody parents in a nowhere neighborhood—so it’s only a matter of time before you fail. You’re not in a position to speak up, or take initiative. What makes you think you can hack it, much less have the right to hack it? Nobody in your bloodline, least of all you, has put in the necessary time!
And so on.
So—you give it all back. Over and over again. You climb 90 percent of Everest and then as you are roaring your way to the top with clear lungs and bright eyes, you decide that you have no right to be there and that by all rights you should go and climb a dozen smaller hills instead, to have them defensibly in your scrapbook, before trying to make this ascent.
Why? Why, for God’s sake?
It’s what I was taught. It’s proper.
You start small. You put in your hours as a novice. Then, as a journeyman. Eventually, as a professional. And then, someday, someday in the far, far future when you’ve exceeded yourself, earned it, justified it, a community of existing victors will notice you, then come along and bestow upon you the honor of “great.” After that—only after that—are you qualified for the ‘big time.’
© Aron Hsiao / 2002
You can’t just jump in and swim without being eaten, and if you’re not eaten right away it’s either because you’re lucky to have escaped your sure fate for a moment or because the devil himself is smiling on you (and if the devil is smiling on you, you’d better run, and then pray for forgiveness).
The ‘right way,’ in other words, is to start at the bottom and make a life of it—not presume to cut the queue and jump right to the top.
Thing is, making a life of it doesn’t actually work. It’s fiction. It’s not how these things are done. If it was, we’d have a world of octogenarian olympians and Harvard and Yale and Chicago would be packed with world-weary gray-hairs rather than young, brilliant hotshots.
You get to the top by opening its front door—helpfully labeled “THIS WAY TO THE TOP” and storming right in with bluster, taking your lumps and smiling along the way. Because there is no entry to the top other than at it’s doorstep.
— § —
Watching my daughter, I desperately hope I can be a better parent to her than I was a steward of my own life through this sort of thing. My pointless waywardness need not derail her joy at jumping into the most exclusive melee with both feet.
And, reflecting just a bit, I could stand to learn the lesson all over again.
Perhaps there’s time yet for me to learn once more—and perhaps, just perhaps—to make good this time.