1: It was 1974. Major League pitcher Tommy John blew out his arm. He damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Permanently. They called it a “dead arm” injury. That was it. Game over.
But Tommy wouldn’t accept that.
He wanted to know: “Was there anything that could give him a shot to get back on the mound?” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
Well, there was an experimental surgery, the doctors told him. They could try to replace the ligament in his pitching elbow with a tendon from his other arm.
“What are the chances of me coming back after this surgery?” Tommy asked.
“One in one hundred,” the doctors told him. But without the surgery? Zero.
Tommy could have retired. He might have hung up his cleats. “But there was a one in one hundred chance,” Ryan writes. “With rehab and training, the opportunity was partially in his control. He took it.
“And won 164 more games over the next thirteen seasons,” he notes. “That procedure in now famously known as ‘Tommy John surgery.'”
Tommy played twenty-six seasons in the major leagues. His rookie year, JFK was president. The year he retired, George H. W. Bush was in office. “He pitched to Mickey Mantle and Mark McGwire,” writes Ryan, “It’s an almost superhuman accomplishment.”
The secret to Tommy’s success was his willingness and ability to ask over and over again: “Is there a chance?” “Do I have a shot?” “Is there something I can do?”
2: As a father, Tommy faced an unimaginable tragedy when his young son fell from a third-story window, swallowed his tongue, and nearly died. “Even in the chaos of the emergency room, with doctors convinced that the boy probably wouldn’t survive,” Ryan writes, Tommy “reminded his family that whether it took one year or ten years, they wouldn’t give up until there was absolutely nothing left they could do.”
His son made a full recovery.
In 1988, Tommy’s career appeared to be over. Now 45 years old, he was cut by the Yankees at the end of the season.
“Still, he would not accept it,” Ryan notes. He called the coach and wanted to know: “If I show up at spring training as a walk-on the next spring, will I get a fair look?”
“You shouldn’t be playing baseball at your age,” he was told. Tommy asked again: “Be straight with me. If I come down there, would I have a chance?”
“Fine, yes, you’ll get one look.”
The following spring, Tommy was the first player to report to camp. “He trained many hours a day, brought every lesson he’d learned playing the sport for a quarter century, and made the team—as the oldest player in the game,” Ryan recollects. “He started the season opener—and won, giving up a scant two runs over seven innings on the road at Minnesota.”
Tommy John “understood that as a professional athlete,” writes Ryan, “his job was to parse the difference between the unlikely and the impossible. Seeing that minuscule distinction was what made him who he was.
“To harness the same power, recovering addicts learn the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; The courage to change the things I can; And the wisdom to know the difference.’
“This is how they focus their efforts. It’s a lot easier to fight addiction when we aren’t also fighting the fact that we were born, that our parents were monsters, or that we lost everything.
“That stuff is done. Delivered. Zero in one hundred chances that we can change it,” Ryan observes.
What if, instead, we focus on what we can change? Because that’s where we can make a difference.
“Behind the Serenity Prayer is a two-thousand-year-old Stoic phrase: ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin: What is up to us, what is not up to us.
“And what is up to us?” Ryan asks. “Our emotions. Our judgments. Our creativity. Our attitude. Our perspective. Our desires. Our decisions. Our determination.
“To argue, to complain, or worse, to just give up, these are choices. Choices that more often than not, do nothing to get us across the finish line.”
3: We begin by clarifying what we do and don’t have the power to change.
“That someone decided not to fund [our] company, this isn’t up to us. But the decision to refine and improve our pitch? That is.
“That someone stole our idea or got to it first? No. To pivot, improve it, or fight for what’s ours? Yes.
“Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power,” writes Ryan. “But every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted—self-indulgent and self-destructive.”
Reflection: Think about a current challenge. What do I control? What don’t I control?
Action: Take action on what I do control. Let go of what I don’t.