For once, we are treated to a sports star ascending the national stage and talking not about his own greatness, his Hollywood girlfriend or his pimped-out fleet of Bentleys, but about self-awareness, the wisdom of his mentors, and the Zen of the knuckleball.
New York Mets ace R.A. Dickey is the most interesting character in baseball and the most improbable All-Star in years. The bearded 37-year-old is quickly becoming a media phenom (as well as an athletic one) because his comeback story is legitimate and genuinely inspiring, not trumped up and overpublicized like the tales of people who write self-flattering books such as The Art of the Comeback.
I got interested in Dickey's story when I first heard about his memoir, published earlier this year, called Wherever I Wind Up. A Rebounder! I thought immediately. I wished I had discovered Dickey's story in time to include him in my own book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, because Dickey embodies the characteristics of resilience as colorfully as any of the 12 strivers I profiled in my book.
Dickey grew up rough in Nashville, a child of divorced parents who married young only because his mom was pregnant with him. At eight, Dickey was serially molested by a female babysitter. A few weeks after that ended, he was raped by a teenage boy behind a garage out in the country. He never told anybody about the abuse until he was in his early 30s.
Dickey was a star pitcher at the University of Tennessee, then he was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1996 and offered an $800,000 signing bonus. But Dickey's big-league dreams unraveled when doctors discovered that a ligament was missing in his elbow. He'd never have the stamina for a big-league career, they told the front office.
Dickey had to give back most of his bonus, and for the next 14 years he yo-yoed between farm teams and the majors, sleeping on inflatable mattresses in decrepit apartments in minor-league towns all across the country. One summer, he earned a few extra bucks by retrieving golf balls from an alligator-infested pond on a golf course and selling them. After marrying his wife Anne in 1997, he began to drag around a brood of kids that now numbers four, wondering all along if he was crazy for putting his family through so much turmoil.
Dickey finally made it back to the big leagues for good in 2011, and so far this year he's a remarkable 12-1, with a 2.40 earned-run average. While his physical talent may be unusual, Dickey has overcome hardship and learned from adversity in ways similar to some of the Rebounders I profiled, including former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, Army veteran and double amputee Tammy Duckworth, and musician Lucinda Williams. The important thing about resilience is that we can get better at it and learn to turn setbacks to our advantage, which Dickey seems to have done. Here's how:
He quit doing what wasn't working. Dickey was a conventional pitcher for most of his career, with a repertoire that consisted mostly of a fastball, a changeup and a curve ball. But he wasn't quite good enough for the majors, and by 2005, when he was 31 -- rather mature by the demanding standards of professional sports -- he could tell his arm strength was starting to fade. That's when he followed some coaches' advice and started to learn how to throw the knuckleball, which turned out to be his breakthrough pitch.
Giving up on what's not working can sometimes open surprising new pathways to success. Many ambitious people are indoctrinated to believe in persistence and abhor the idea of quitting. But persisting at a bad idea or a mediocre talent only prolongs failure. A lot of people become successful only when they let go of Plan A and try something else.
He waited. It can be maddening to watch peers become successful while you toil on like a journeyman. A culture that idolizes prodigies such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doesn't make it any easier, since it's easy to feel like a failure if you don't succeed on the first try. Dickey acknowledges many moments of self-doubt, yet he stuck around baseball long enough to succeed in an unconventional way, after the first route didn't lead where he wanted. There's more than one way to succeed, and all the overnight-success stories that the media tends to gorge on belie the fact that experience and hard learning still matter a lot. Quite often, it pays to be humble, keep learning, and continue to look for new ways to get where you want to go.
He believes in a heroic narrative. One interesting thing I noticed while researching resilient people is that some of them see themselves as protagonists on a kind of epic quest, which helps frame what they believe in and generate a powerful sense of purpose. There's no formula for this, but one commonality is a belief in something big that they're merely a part of. Dickey's touchstone seems to be religious: He prays frequently, and in his book he describes many moments when he felt the Holy Spirit was speaking to him.
Dickey also reveres the "Jedi Council" who taught him to throw the awkward new pitch -- former knuckleballers Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro -- and he counsels younger pitchers himself. Overall, Dickey's whole approach toward his craft reflects humility instead of hype and subordinates certitude to open-mindedness. His time in the spotlight is a shining moment for sports fans everywhere.
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