Lessons In Resiliency From The Heart Of A Champion
Simon Keith is, literally, a walking miracle. In 1989, the former soccer standout for at UNLV, made history by becoming the first heart transplant recipient to play professional sports. Keith was the number one pick in that year’s professional indoor soccer draft and, at the time, many celebrated him for the distinction of his role as a heart recipient playing his sport at such a high level. Keith ignored the media hype because he didn’t want special treatment. Worse, he didn’t want to be seen as a “less-than-before athlete,” he said. Against the naysayers and his doctor’s wishes, Keith wanted to compete and be the best on the field…and he wasn’t going to let a life-altering experience sideline him.
Now, 25 years after his transplant, Keith is the CEO of the Simon Keith Foundation and a leading voice for organ donor awareness. A couple of years ago I met Keith and heard his story firsthand. I played a small part in him sharing that story in a book, “Heart For The Game: The Incredible Saga of Simon Keith.” Just recently, his incredible tale was featured in an ESPN special, and as you listen to Simon, you can’t help but see how his approach to challenges can apply to each of us.
1. Define Life By Your Own Rules. After his operation, Keith wanted to immediately jump back into his cleats to pursue his dream of playing professional soccer. But his doctors informed him that he, like all who receive heart transplants at that time, had only a 50 percent chance of surviving the next ten years of his life. If he stressed himself – and his heart – those odds could worsen.
Keith realized he was at a crossroads. “I could either play it safe and leave sports behind, or do everything humanly possible to train, improve, and become better than before,” he said. “I refused to be a broken athlete. I would not allow my transplant to define me.”
Like many of the Great performers in sports, Keith understood that his condition meant he couldn’t just work harder than others, he had to work smarter. That is ultimately true for us all. To succeed against our competitors, we must not just put in more time, we must show more discipline.
“This is not a secret limited to athletics,” said Keith. “In my opinion there are very few truly gifted athletes. Those who are willing to work the hardest always accomplish incredible things.”
Simon Keith with a photo of himself after his heart transplant surgery. Keith was the first heart transplant recipient to play professional sports. Photo courtesy of The Simon Keith Foundation.
2. Keep The Light On Green. Keith not only defied every odd against him, but flourished in his recovery. And through it all—the rehab process, physical toil, and emotional duress—Keith credits his competitive nature with helping him develop a resistance to fear in order to move forward.
“Character doesn’t show up when times are good, but when you’re really in trouble and all the support has subsided,” Keith said. “In the end, all you have is your character. Are you willing to fight or lay down.”
Keith says that “fear paralyzes people” which prevents them from tapping into their own power—which is undeniably true. Too often in sports, business, or our personal lives, we avoid a challenge because we are simply too afraid to take it head on. And in avoiding the challenge, we lose our power over it.
Keith advises otherwise, and likens overcoming difficulties with traffic lights.
“Fear is a yellow light, and people on red don’t move at all,” said Keith. “Leaders should always see green lights. You can do an analysis, make a strategy, but just go. Don’t stop yourself from doing something amazing out of fear.”
“If you are scared of something, go and get it.”
3. Turn the List Upside Down. We can “redefine our experiences” and “keep the light on green” in moments of crisis, but what about when the seas are calm?
“People live their lives by lists, tasks, and schedules, often with easier tasks first and bigger, more challenging objectives last,” said Keith. “I’d tell anyone who desires to be a leader in their professional life to turn that list upside down. Inevitably, the big and chunky items always end up at the bottom. Attack those first.”
Keith’s strategy on tackling the “big and chunky” has allowed him to find uncommon levels of success—and it’s an incredible lesson for us all. Professionals may find that taking on tougher projects first can not only lighten a demanding workload, but also strengthen their problem-solving abilities and provide a wider perspective.
“Think bigger: Go after the big and chunky,” said Keith. “And then determine if you can make one decision that can take care of all the other decisions.”
Keith is right. The Great Ones always see the bigger picture and, like Keith said, are strategic in approaching their challenges head first.
What “big and chunky” challenges are you facing in your professional or personal life? As Keith has demonstrated, we can accomplish the unthinkable if we are willing to aggressively pursue them—no matter our condition or place in life. Additionally, we cannot grow if we don’t “turn the list upside down” and attack our greatest challenges.
Do you (or your professional team) have a story about overcoming adversity, and becoming better in the process? I’d love to hear your story!