I got together with a dear friend over the weekend. He’s someone who I admire greatly for his amazing insight into and knowledge about people, a skill which has proven invaluable to him and those of us fortunate enough to work with him. The talk eventually turned to current events and Wimbledon. Despite being an accomplished tennis player who played at an elite level throughout college, he said he now rarely watches the game on TV and scarcely knew who was in the tournament. A not-at-all accomplished tennis player myself, I said the same, remembering watching tennis on TV when I was much younger but not being able to mention players more recent than the Williams sisters.
We ticked off those we could recall, and my memories of going to the US Open with my dad brought Andrea Jaeger to mind. My friend lit up at her name and shared the story of being a ball boy at a tournament in Florida where she was playing. It was a big deal for him, getting the chance to see some of the who’s who in tennis up close at an exclusive resort that few got the chance to enter without paying the spectator’s high ticket price. But it ended up being a short-lived thrill.
The tennis phenom, frustrated by my friend’s focus on the many people who he recognized in the stands over chasing down balls, yelled at him and shortly thereafter had him ejected. Ouch. I couldn’t recall ever having seen or heard of this happening, so for someone spending lots of time on the tennis court, I could only imagine how this must have felt.
But what happened next is less unusual. This big disappointment and embarrassment led to a more fitting opportunity – one in which he was tapped to work with the TV commentators to point out the famous people in the crowd. Not only could he do this with ease, but his unique ability to catalog all sorts of seemingly trivial information about people allowed him to add fantastic color commentary to those he highlighted. And this time he was asked to return for the next match.
His keen insight into people, his ability to pinpoint what makes them tick and connect the dots between who they are and what they do, amazes me at every turn. But it’s something he takes entirely for granted. It’s also something that sets him apart from his peers and causes people to seek him out – as a coworker and as a friend.
It’s a reminder that what comes easily to each of us and what we take for granted as ‘nothing special’ may well be the invaluable attribute that sets us apart from all the rest. When we land in a role that’s not a good fit and take the time to understand why, it can be the perfect opportunity to navigate to one that makes a better use of our abilities. Had my daughter been part of the discussion she would likely have explained that my friend had failed. Because as she’s told me on multiple occasions, ‘FAIL’ stands for First Attempt In Learning. What’s key is that we learn from each attempt.