“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” — Denzel Washington
It was the spring of 1982 and my sophomore wrestling season had just ended. At 28-7 in only my fourth year of competitive wrestling and a 2X varsity letter winner, I thought I was pretty good. What I didn't know is what Jim Collins author of 'Good to Great' would share 20 years into the future..."good is the enemy of great". Though Jim Collins would become famous for coining the phrase, my mentor knew and shared this with me when confronted with his admonition after the season that I needed to work harder to get better.
"Dude...what do you mean I need to work harder?", I shared. "I know I didn't make it to the state tournament like you did, but I'm only a sophomore and am breaking school records yearly."
"Ok, what's your goal?", he asked.
"To be an Ohio High School State Wrestling Champion", I responded.
"You've won a lot but who have you lost too in the past two years?", he queried.
After thinking about it, I begrudgingly murmured, "state qualifiers, placers and champions".
He simply responded, "in order to be a State Champion, you have to beat them."
It was that 'Aha' moment that I learned the incalculable value of having someone who could see what I couldn't. The name of my erstwhile eponymous mentor, sage, guide, coach and north star is John (Johnny) Nelson Jr.. As my very first mentor, he was then and remains today the single greatest influence in my life to date. As Denzel's quote so perfectly illustrates, Johnny was the key that unlocked the possibilities of my potential. Though I thought I was 'pretty good' at that time, he took me by the hand and showed me what it took to be 'great'.
What I learned from him then, now 40 years ago, is the foundation upon which the rest of my life has been built. As is mine, a mentor is the critical catalyst that can not only shortcut the learning curve to greatness but more so guide you down the path to success that you otherwise wouldn't know existed. I've learned more than I can put in words from Johnny, but the following is my best attempt at summarizing the wisdom he imparted upon me that all mentors offer:
Guidance: Mentors not only know a proven path; they know all of the pitfalls, detours and dangers lurking around the corners along the way. They know when to hold your hand and walk with you because you don't know where you're going and when to let go and allow you traverse it on your own. They know when to warn you of upcoming crisis to avoid it and when to let you experience it as its lesson, though painful, is critically necessary for you to grow.
Work Ethic: Nothing replaces the work that's necessary to achieve excellence in any field. Mentors push you further than you otherwise believe you can go and then push you even more. From them, you learn the true definition of 'willingness' - to be willing when you're NOT willing. When you've physically and mentally reached what you believe is your ceiling, they reach down, grab your hand and pull you to heights unknown by your limited thinking.
Accountability: Self discipline is a hallmark of all great achievement, however it's not something you're born with, it's something you learn. Mentors are the professors that teach the lessons and keep you accountable to all that's necessary for you to accomplish your goals when you otherwise wouldn't do so on your own. Without this accountability, goals are only good ideas that won't manifest into reality.
Support: All great endeavors come with seemingly unconquerable challenges. It's part of what makes the attainment of the dream so worthy. Though true, when faced with them and not knowing their value at the time they're presented, a mentor is the one who supports you in realizing, "this too shall pass" and to be not weary in well-doing for in due time you shall reap the harvest." They've got your best interest in mind like no other and provide the wisdom to balance the highs and lows of the journey.
Unconditional Love: Whether you win, lose, succeed, or fail; they love you regardless. They don't love you for what you've achieved, they love you for who you are. Because of the time, effort, knowledge, resources and experience they pour into you; they share equally (if not more so) in the joy from your victories and the pain in your losses. Their love for you is the essence of God's unconditional love for us all.
Though I didn't accomplish my initial goal of becoming an Ohio state champion, I've met, surpassed and continue to reset every imaginable goal I've ever dreamed of. Though I've since had several invaluable mentors through the years, none of them have had the impact that Johnny has.
Most reading this have a Johnny in your life just like I've had him in mine. If you haven't already, take the time to let them know the impact they've had on you, then find another young'n and pay it forward to them. If you haven't had a mentor yet, I pray that you find and allow them to enter your life. Through them, you'll discover the key that unlocks your possibility of possibilities which then unleashes your magnificence to the world.
Johnny, eternal thanks! I'm doing my best to honor you and pay it forward as you did for me. With nothing but love, respect and gratitude for you my Brother.