As a New Englander, I’d have much preferred that Tom Brady continue to use his tremendous talent in service of the Patriots (he just started his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Nonetheless, I was delighted by his wise words on a recent podcast, which can help all ambitious people on the path to achievement, regardless of team affiliation or interest in sports.
Brady joined hosts Dax Shepherd and Monica Padman for an episode of Armchair Expert, an entertaining and often enlightening interview show with experts from a wide variety of fields. The conversation delves into Brady’s earliest jobs and his preprofessional experience with sports, and it highlights the critical importance of grit—of pressing on in the face of adversity. Tom Brady without grit, or his resulting penchant for clutch plays, would not be Tom Brady. He would not be, as he is, one of the highest-achieving football players in history.
What most impressed me in the interview, though, was the discussion of Brady’s approach to self-improvement. “If your goal was only to have been as good as Joe Montana or someone else,” observes Shepherd, “then we wouldn’t have learned the limits of what someone could be. Your war seems to have been with yourself, which I think is the best war you can have. As long as you’re better than the guy from last year, you’re on the right path.” Brady responds by talking about helping his kids see the difference between trying to be the best, which is inherently comparative, and doing their own best, an ever-evolving challenge that keeps one focused on oneself and enables one to achieve more. In Brady’s words:
I said to my kids the other day, “Is it most important to do your best, or is it more important to do the best? What’s going to be more fulfilling for you in your life?” We’re so conditioned to do the best. And the reality is that doing your best and not being attached to the best is going to allow you to have more whatever it could be, [for example] emotional stability. You know, if you become attached to being better than your brother, better than this other person, there are inherent letdowns in all of those things.
I’m reminded of the distinction that novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand makes in her beautiful book The Fountainhead between being first-handed and being second-handed. (Perhaps Shepherd, who’s mentioned in multiple episodes that The Fountainhead is his favorite book, had the same thought, though he doesn’t draw the connection explicitly.) Howard Roark, the story’s protagonist, loves being an architect because he loves the creative essence of the work. Peter Keating, on the other hand, chooses the profession because he thinks it will bring him prestige—that it will make others think more of him. He tries, and fails miserably, to be the best. Roark says of Keating,
What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder.1
Keating, and others like him, “have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.” And they meet with the “inherent letdowns” that Brady mentions.
For Brady, genuine achievement is “just about maximizing your potential” and focusing on “progress, not perfection” by continuously asking, “How can I be a little bit better today than I was yesterday?”
What Brady here advocates, in essence, is a first-handed approach to life and competition—an approach that The Fountainhead explores in great detail. Brady says, “I have a real strong fire that burns based on me never wanting to let myself down. Giving less than my best effort is a hard thing for me.” This has been key to Brady’s tremendous success.
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1. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, Centennial Edition (New York: Plume, 1943), 633.