When I was in Florence last quarter, I took a bus to the outskirts of the city, where I had found the only baseball diamond around. I was meeting with the coach of a local club to find out if I could play with them for a couple months. Since baseball barely exists in Europe, I had no idea what to expect in terms of atmosphere or level of play.
It turned out that I wasn’t going to play any baseball in Florence. Somewhere along the line, the Italian coach had somehow gotten the mistaken impression that I was going to be in the country for three years, not three months. But before we discovered the misunderstanding, his first question for me upon our meeting was, in Italian, “How many championships have you won?” The question has haunted me ever since.
I’m pretty sure he was not referring to World Series rings, but beyond that, I don’t know. Does T-ball count? If I had known the word (il T-ball), I might have asked. Though this was probably the last time that I will be asked this question in a job interview, it is nevertheless an important one to answer for my own peace of mind. At some point in our lives, I think that many of us have or will look back on what we have accomplished and wonder: Are we champions, or are we failures?
I am deciding to not count T-ball because in my league — in the spirit of fun — there were no outs and everyone was declared the winner of every game. (However, I always insisted that actually only my team had won.)
Though in life there doesn’t have to be a loser for there to be a winner, the same is not true of sports. My last championship came when I was fourteen, when the Saratoga White Sox defeated the heavily favored Red Sox in extra innings in front of a crowd of tens. As far as I was (and am) concerned, this victory was as meaningful as any in professional sports. For years afterward, I honestly felt that there was nothing more I needed to prove to the world.
A championship is a mental victory; it is a moment when we feel that our actions have justified our existence in the universe. Being a champion is ultimately a personal experience — if you do not feel like one, no one can make you one — but that does not stop our society from conferring the title on people we admire, particularly those who make founding contributions to their fields. John Muir, whose work led to the creation of Yosemite National Park, was a champion of natural beauty. Alice Waters is a champion for fresh, healthy food prepared from high-quality, locally-produced ingredients. And Aung San Suu Kyi, who has stood up against military dictatorship at great personal risk, is a champion of Burmese democracy.
Being a World Series champion or a Super Bowl winner may sound insignificant in comparison, but ranking people is not the goal here. Life is not a contest of who is the strongest, or the bravest or even who can make the greatest positive impact on the world. There are many types of champions and many ways to become one, most of which don’t involve fame. The first step is dedicating yourself toward something that is important to you, regardless of the odds against you. Your task might be something big, like raising a kid well, or it could be smaller, like writing a poem that says something true. Or maybe it’s training secretly for weeks to finally beat your friend at ping-pong.
Don’t spend all of your time preparing for the future. It’s better strategy to mix short- and long-term goals so that, with luck, you will have moments of glory sprinkled throughout your life. You can’t deprive yourself for too long, the soul always craves victory. For optimal health, it should be a frequent pursuit.
Jeff would like to incorporate your questions, comments, and complaints about social life at Stanford into future columns. He appreciates your thoughts, which can be sent to jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.