The Players Tribune has a running feature called “Letters to My Younger Self.” In each edition, they have a world-class athlete write a letter to their past-self, offering advice and guidance from the present. Asking successful people “what do you know now that you wish you knew then” is a trope at this point, but the letters are long-form and much more nuanced. These reflections aren’t about changing the past, they’re about highlighting meaning that wasn’t fully understood in the midst of the journey.
The athlete’s mental toughness, discipline, and commitment are inspiring. And, since they’re advising their younger selves almost as if they’re a different person, we can apply many of these lessons to our professional work. These are not just studies of personal motivation, but of the power of personalized motivation.
Take Marta’s letter as an example. If you don’t know her, Marta is arguably the greatest female soccer player to have ever played the game. From very humble beginnings in Brazil, she rose to the absolute pinnacle of the sport. In her letter, she focuses on telling her fourteen-year-old self to “get on the bus.” Her journey is full of twists and turns, but it all started with the confidence to get on a bus and leave home.
At only fourteen, the overwhelming amount of uncertainty she faced at the time is almost impossible to imagine. For context, we have to understand that in Brazil in the 1990s she was a little girl playing a men’s game, and everyone reminded her of it. Everyone, that is, except her mother. Her mom, who worked too much to ever really see her play, constantly was telling others to “let her be.” The neighborhood kids and adults, the teachers, the coaches – her mom always validated her ambitions. If she wanted to play soccer, then let her do it. If she was good, what was the fuss about?
From “let her be” to “get on the bus,” we follow Marta from barefoot rural pickup games, to walking onto the Brazilian National Team, to playing in leagues all over the world. From someone else believing in her against the odds, to believing in herself enough to get on the bus – it all serves as a reminder of how taking a step into the unknown can produce results beyond our imaginations.
Professionally, there’s so much to extract here. We should remember the bravery it takes to get onto our (and our clients’) own proverbial busses. We should see the power of a supportive voice like Marta’s mother’s and what it can mean to someone’s trajectory. We should embrace that gender-based standards are changing and when possible, we can help create those opportunities through actions, not just acknowledgments.
We’re all in the business of guiding and advising others. What motivates each of us is slightly different. Personalizing motivation and pointing out the details on the journey that matter, past and present, is a very powerful approach. Where there is meaning, there is value. Helping others find it and harness it is where we can make our greatest difference.