Saturday, February 20, 2010

What Defines You

Not far into Tiger Woods’ 13-minute apology press conference yesterday, the golfer recited a quote that goes,

It’s not what you achieve in life that matters, it’s what you overcome.

Good quote - says a lot about someone's character. I was curious where he got it and started searching.

Tiger may have picked up the phrase in Golf Magazine, back in May 1980, when he was reading about golfer Johnny Miller, who was quoted as saying, “I'm not much of a student, but during my slump I had taken to reading the Scriptures a good bit as well as a few pieces on philosophy and life. And I remember having read a statement that went something like this: ‘It's not what you accomplish in life, but what you overcome.’”

It’s possible Tiger kept that quote in mind since 1980, to help him through a few slumps along the way. And putting the quote in that context explains a lot. If Tiger thought character was about overcoming golf slumps, he was a disaster waiting to happen.

But perhaps Tiger remembered a more recent use of the phrase by Carlton Fisk, when the famous catcher was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On July 23, 2000, near the end of Fisk’s speech, he said this:

“Sometimes they say, ‘It's not what you achieve in life that defines you, it's what you overcome.’ And I feel that baseball offers a lot of those lessons, because there's so much to overcome. Failure is so closely connected with success. And there would be no success, if there were no failure. So you have to understand that we are Hall of Famers, but we are not perfect.”

Tiger would sure see the wisdom in that – “we are not perfect.” Also Fisk was talking about failure, not just golf slumps (are they the same thing to these guys?). Sounds more relevant to Tiger's situation. But the words, "that defines you" caught my eye. Tiger used the words, “that matters". I think if he knew the Fisk quote, he probably would have said, “that defines you.” It’s much stronger.

Fisk of course did not coin the saying either, since he said, “Sometimes they say…” Perhaps he was a golf magazine subscriber, or a student of “philosophy and life” like Mr. Miller. Anyway, I was unable to find out who “they” were.

The quote “it’s what you overcome” doesn’t show up online until Brainyquote attributed it to Mr. Fisk in early 2001. But the website appears to have misquoted him as saying, “It’s not what you achieve, it’s what you overcome. That’s what defines your career.” Numerous other quote sites have republished it as such since then.  If you trust the transcript of the Hall of Fame speech Fisk delivered in July 2000 the original has a lot more punch.

I hope Brainyquote fixes the Fisk listing, gives separate attribution to Mr. Miller’s version, and leaves Tiger off the quote lists altogether. This lovely quote should not hereafter be associated with overcoming a public relations disaster resulting from inexcusably bad judgment. No, this saying serves a higher purpose: it inspires us to overcome those challenges life presents that are beyond our control.

For a wonderful example of this, look no further than this article about Eunice Kennedy Shriver from the Washington Post. Her friend, paying tribute to Mrs. Shriver’s devotion to the Special Olympics, writes, “She truly believed, and she instilled in those events, the idea that it's not what you achieve in life, it's what you overcome. A morally driven and politically astute woman, she sprung open doors globally for the mentally disabled and opened minds that had too long been closed to accepting people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.”

Now that is the kind of context this quote deserves.

If any of you can solve the mystery of the origin of the saying, please let us know. In the meantime, we will give Mr. Fisk – and certainly not Mr. Woods – the credit at

Gary @ Quote Palettes

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