WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM TIGER WOODS
The other week I stole something, although I plan on having my wife return the item for me in the near future, so technically I think I can say I borrowed it.
The item in question is a ragged copy of Sports Illustrated that I lifted from a hospital waiting room while my wife was attempting to get a tuberculosis test read. She wanted to register for nursing assistant classes, and yes, before such programs want to know much of anything else about you, they apparently want to know if you’ve recently fled some third-world TB sanitarium in order to seek refuge in the American healthcare profession.
“You can just stay sitting right there,” the nurse merrily told my wife upon entering the waiting room. It was a Saturday morning, and much of the hospital’s first floor was eerily empty save a little action in the ER (like the agitated, probably drunk young girl that the cops had brought in for some sort of evaluation following her Friday night adventures). “This should only take, like, two seconds.”
“Okay,” my wife nodded to the nurse, and we all smiled at each other to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the procedural formality we were enduring together.
“Hmm,” said the nurse as she continued to press and rub at my wife’s forearm well past the promised two seconds. “Actually, I think I’m going to get someone else to take a look at this. Why don’t you come back to an exam room with me?”
My wife slowly followed the nurse through an ominous set of doors, and I sweated a bit as I waited for her to return. We were looking forward to going on vacation the next morning, and I wondered, What are the chances of life getting turned around by news of tuberculosis on an otherwise bright Saturday morning? I said a little prayer and continued to wait.
Thankfully that TB test was negative, and while the confusion of that morning didn't end up turning my life around, it did provide me with enough time to start reading Alan Shipnuck’s Sports Illustrated cover article entitled "What Happened?: It Remains the Most Vexing Question in Sports." As I read the first pages, I realized I hadn't thought about Tiger in a while.
Tiger Woods. Do you remember that guy? It’s now been 11 years since the man who once dominated our collective idea of golf won a green jacket at the Masters, and it can, in the year 2016, seem easy to forget both the glorious hurricane that was his career and the furious shitstorm that was his fall from grace.
Do you remember the 79 PGA tour victories? Do you remember the 14 majors? Do you remember the car crash, the Ambien sex, and the way that, upon his “return,” he kept missing puts and dropping out of tournaments and failing to get his life and career back on track like many people thought he would?
I know that I used to be completely enthralled by Tiger’s career. I was intensely interested in his quest to shatter Jack Nicklaus’s record for major tournament victories, but I have to admit that ever since his semi-disappearance, I’ve barely been able to maintain more than a waning enthusiasm for that “sport” involving little balls and tiny cups. In the time since Tiger's disappearance, I’ve wondered about his golf career, but I’ve really wondered more about him as a person. That should probably serve as a reminder that the story of Tiger Woods is really about so much more than a career, as is the case with any of us.
So what is the story of Eldrick Woods about? What can we all learn from the mind-boggling tale of the Tiger? I believe the lessons are numerous, but I’ve condensed my thoughts into five takeaways that I hope readers will find useful.
Lesson Number One: Guard Your Confidence
In the SI article, one of Tiger’s competitors said something to the effect of: “Once you miss an eight-foot putt, it just becomes easier to miss the next one. Even if you are Tiger Woods.”
That quote really stuck with me, because I can certainly look back on my life and see numerous instances of myself getting gun shy or clumsy after a setback or screw up.
The lesson here is to find ways to constantly refuel your confidence in yourself. I think this can be done by pursuing deep and meaningful spiritual health (how can confidence not be boosted if one believes that the Creator of the Universe is in one’s corner?), I think that this can be done by working up a sweat most days (who doesn’t feel better after a good run or a powerful weight-lifting session), and I think that this can be done by productively dealing with both accomplishments and “failures” (remember to pat yourself on the back in times of triumph and always be gentle with yourself after lapses in performance or judgement so that you can get back up).
Lesson Number Two: Live Authentically
Tiger was a man with two lives. He was, on the one hand, the squeaky clean poster boy for the PGA, for Nike, and for numerous others— he was the world’s picture of athletic perfection and mental focus— and he was also, on another hand, an angry and frustrated individual who probably felt confused much of the time because he could rarely speak or act as himself.
It seems as if Tiger Woods wanted his charade to break after a while. It seems as if he wanted to say, “Look, I’m human. See, I’m complex. I’m more than just a golfer or a spokesperson.” And although Tiger’s life might be the perfect example of the messiest way to go about breaking into a more authentic existence, it can probably be seen an example of breaking into one nonetheless.
The lesson here is to live as yourself before you self-destruct. If you ever feel that you can’t really live as yourself because of some professional mask you are forced to wear or because of some role you feel forced to play for family members or another group of individuals, remember that your happiness is truly as important as anyone else’s happiness. Your thoughts, opinions, and hopes are just as important as anyone else’s. Do what it takes to prove that. Change careers, set limits on your availability, pursue some dreams you abandoned long ago, do whatever it takes.
Lesson Number Three: Diversify Your Dreams
This is a lesson that I also gathered from listening to Patrick Swayze’s book The Time of My Life. Patrick Swayze emphasized that you always have to have Dream B and Goal B (and perhaps C, D, and so forth), or else disappointment in one area of life can absolutely crush you. Patrick Swayze (Bodhi, as I will forever know him) was almost an Olympic gymnast. He was almost a world-renowned ballet dancer. He suffered injuries (mostly physical but also mental and emotional) and unforeseen circumstances that could have left him obscure and whimpering, but he kept moving in new directions and contributed to art that many of my generation still enjoy.
What does Tiger Woods have now? Although the SI article seemed to suggest that he now spends a lot of solitary time in his mansion playing video games, it also quotes him gushing (as much as Tiger can gush) about his foundation, which provides educational opportunities to underprivileged youth. Tiger seems to truly enjoy giving opportunities and confidence to kids who otherwise might not get much of either from the world, and maybe his semi-departure from the world of golf will ultimately prove not only tolerable but desirable because of his “backup” goal of helping the next generations to find successes of their own.
Lesson Number Four: Free Yourself from the Expectations of Others
Did Tiger ever feel cheated by life because he felt he was ultimately living the dreams of Earl Woods (and later of the American public) instead of pursuing some deeply original and personal dreams of his own? Such speculation is just that, but it isn’t difficult to think that maybe he wanted to escape from the expectations of others for quite some time.
Maybe for the first time in a long time Tiger feels at peace right now. Maybe he finally feels some deep sense of relief just playing his video games and not worrying about being Tiger Woods.
The lesson here comes back to living authentically. If you’re doing what you’re doing in life because you think you should do it for others, then it’s time to move in new directions—even if that can only happen very slowly. It can be difficult to escape the shackles of living within the confines of others’ expectations and opinions of us, but if we don’t, then the results will be depressing and can even be grossly destructive as we start to rebel against a life that doesn’t feel like our own.
Lesson Number Five: Never Close the Book on Yourself
Is the story of Tiger Woods finished? Absolutely not. None of our stories is ever finished until we say it is. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Tiger incrementally returns to some sort of respectable glory and even goes on to surpass Jack Nicklaus in major tournament wins. And if he never plays in another major tournament (or never plays golf again, for that matter), then that’s fine, too, as long as he is at peace with the direction his life is taking.
Maybe Tiger will surprise everyone by succeeding in a totally nonathletic role. Maybe he will embark on some quest that is much more important to him than being Ultimate Golf Champion of the World ever was. The only failure would be in shutting the book on himself, and that could happen if he proves obsessed with the thought that his life was only worth something as a golfer.
The lesson here could be one of doors closing and opening, it could be one of finding the
life-saving bits of fire in the belly during a particularly frigid stretch of life, and it could be one conveyed through a dozen other clichés that speak about pushing forward and finding new motivation. We all have to remember to never give up on ourselves, and we have to remember to never give in to the idea that our best days are behind us. We all have to remember that there are still important chapters to be written in our lives, and we have to remember that we alone decide when and how to start penning those next installments.
So go ahead. Start moving into your next chapters. And when you get discouraged or fatigued, remember that even Tiger Woods has a steep hill to climb most mornings on his way to finding his best life. But those hills make us stronger.