Greg Harden was counseling athletes at the University of Michigan when a player named Tom Brady came into his office. Brady says Harden “pushed me to wake up and grow up.” This kind of pushing one’s own potential is something Harden learned for himself early on and has instilled in other athletes including Michael Phelps as well as executives from major corporations. Now, he’s distilled his insights into the book, Stay Sane In an Insane World, from which this is excerpted.
When I got my bachelor’s degree but before I had done any graduate work, I was eager to find a career. I was known as a “health nut” back then, so I thought what the hell, I’m going to start my own health club, with a nice health food restaurant attached to it. To get to that goal, I figured I’d start out in the health field and quickly work my way up to management.
I targeted several companies in the health industry. Every single one of them turned me down. Finally, I took a gamble and walked into a Vic Tanny International. If you’re of a certain age, you might recognize that name. Vic Tanny had over 100 clubs all over the country. He was one of the first owners to turn sweaty muscle-head “gyms” into modern, well-appointed “health clubs.”
I’ll never forget that day. Sam and Bob were the managers, and they both had to hide their amusement when I walked in off the street and suggested that I should be on their management team. After they made it crystal clear that this fantasy wasn’t going to come true, I went to plan B:
“So hire me as a fitness instructor,” I said. I was in superior shape then, with 4 percent body fat. What more could they want?
“We don’t need any more instructors,” they said. “But we do need a porter.”
They were surprised when I immediately said, “I’m your man.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t “porter” just a fancy word for “janitor?” Yes! But unlike most people who would find themselves in such a job, I decided that I would have no problem with whatever task they assigned me. It was a conscious choice. I cleaned the carpets; I emptied the trash cans; I cleaned the sweat off the mirrors and scum off the showers. I sanitized the toilets and the urinals.
And most importantly, I gave 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
I engaged with everybody I met in that club. I treated each person as if they were the most valued employee or customer in the world. I “whistled while I worked,” and I tried to lift the spirits of everyone else in that environment. And yes, not only did I still clean and polish the urinals, I did it as if I were cleaning and polishing my Rolls-Royce.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music.” I was just a porter, but I never forgot: That job was not who I was; it was simply what I was given to do.
Think About What Skills You’re Training
I made the deliberate and intentional decision to be the absolute best at doing this job. No one would ever be a better porter, period. And no one would study the day-to-day operations of a health club better than I, from my unique vantage point of seeing it from the ground up.
Within six months, I was the club’s assistant manager.
Your commitment to consistently perform at the highest level possible, to project a positive attitude, will support your quest to climb to the top of any industry. It’s one of the most productive habits you can ever develop: Practice, train, and rehearse giving 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
I see young athletes in my office every day, and for many of them, their first year in college is a huge adjustment. Think about it. They were given certain physical gifts that made them stars in high school. Most never had to work hard or give 100 percent to succeed, to be the center of attention, to have articles written about them in the local paper. Many of them never had to work hard in the classroom, either, because frankly, academics was rarely the top priority.
So now, here they are at the University of Michigan, surrounded— for the first time in their lives—by athletes who are just as good as they are. The social and academic pressures are suddenly beyond anything they’ve ever experienced before. And even in their sport, the one place where they excelled, they are forced to actually work hard in practice and to develop their bodies, instead of just relying on their God-given talents.
That’s often when I encounter these young men and women: just as they’re dealing with all these challenges. One of the most important things I always try to do is turn these challenges into something fun. That’s right: fun!
Turn Your Challenge Into a Game
Imagine I’m talking to a young man from the inner city or from a small town in the middle of Indiana, a kid who’s never excelled at anything except basketball. Turn this into a game, I tell him. A competition with yourself. Just try it out for one semester. In your schoolwork, give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. How fun would it be to make the dean’s list? How fun would it be to shatter everyone’s expectations for you? To destroy the stereotype that people have in their minds because of how you look and where you came from? You came here to shoot a basketball through a hoop and you’re on the dean’s list? You can whip everyone’s ass both on the court and in the classroom? Can you even imagine how much fun it would be to blow everyone’s mind like that?
Of course, in doing that, you’ll be training yourself to be self-motivated, to be self-disciplined. You’re going to be training yourself to have the mind of a champion, which is going to make you a better person. Which is going to make you an even better athlete.
You’re training yourself not to be lazy. To rise to any challenge. You’re proving to yourself that anything you put your mind to, whatever you commit to, you can achieve.
And remember, we’re talking about the stuff that you don’t even like! You’re training yourself to give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, at the stuff that doesn’t appeal to you, that doesn’t come naturally to you.
The greatest competition you’re ever going to face is yourself. If you can take yourself on and be better than you were yesterday, you can take on anybody.
So imagine this for me: If you train yourself to give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, to the stuff you hate, how phenomenal are you going to be when you get to the stuff you love?
This is where I’m trying to take you, and as I said earlier, it’s one of the most important things I coach: If you make it your mindset, your vision of who you are, that you’re going to make it a habit to give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, in everything you do—if you make that your norm, your base level, your default mode—then on your absolutely worst day, even when you slip, you’re still going to be better than the average person on their best day.
Excerpted from Stay Sane In An Insane World by Greg Harden. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2023 by Greg Harden.