Pressure is a privilege – really?

We have just finished spending more time than I should admit watching one of the best US Tennis Opens ever. The quality of the tennis and the remarkable level of the young emerging tennis players was something to behold. Energy, brilliant play, joy, and disappointment were all on display throughout the two weeks. Sometimes it seemed unfair that one of the players was going to win and the other one lose when they both seemed like winners.

Go, Bianca – how nice is it to see the Canadian flag with the US Open tennis champion?!

Throughout the two weeks of matches, when the players passed through the tunnel to play in Arthur Ash Stadium, they passed a plaque with Billie Jean King’s quote embossed on it: Pressure is a Privilege. And often one of the commentators would remind the viewers of that quote and how inspirational it is. The first time I heard it, and even the second and third time, I thought, “Hmm, this sounds like it must be profound. I should give it more thought.” I’ve been thinking of it often these past few days and, I have to say, I’m not convinced this quote is particularly appropriate in most situations. However, it certainly has been embraced. When I googled it I found a number of references to books and articles using “Pressure is a privilege” as their main motivator. Virtually all of these books and articles were about business and leadership.

Arthur Ash Stadium tunnel, Billie Jean King quote

The fuller version of her quote is: “Pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it.” What she means is (and she’s written a whole book based on this quote) that when you reach for the top you should expect pressure, and the fact that you’re near the top and in a position to reach for the top prize is a privilege not granted to many. So, if you’re in this situation in your chosen field, be it sports or other leadership roles, pressure comes with the territory. And since this quote is from an elite athlete, it goes without saying that it refers to pressure in a competitive environment. You’re competing for something important and you feel the pressure. Her point is not just that feeling the pressure is natural but also that you are closing in on achieving a very big personal goal; a “winner” will take that pressure and use it to his or her advantage.

This way of thinking has a natural application to leadership roles in business when, for example, you’re competing for the next rung on the corporate ladder or when you’re trying to beat out your competitors in nailing down a contract. And it may have a less competition-focused interpretation for leaders when they feel pressure, for example, in dealing with tough personnel situations: maybe a tough situation because an employee needs your help and support or a tough situation because an employee is causing disruption. This kind of pressure, as well as the continual financial pressures of any organization, are part of the package of leadership, and it is fair to say that it is the privilege of that position.

However, I don’t think the quote “Pressure is a privilege” is accurate or helpful for the majority of people – those of us who are leading our lives without the kind of aspirations Billie Jean King was talking about. I’m thinking of the majority of people, who are trying to lead a good life and provide for themselves and those who count on them. Maybe even have a little fun along the way. They would tell you that they feel plenty of pressure: the pressure of being there for everyone who counts on them; the pressure to keep their jobs in the face of a demanding and/or incompetent boss or changing job market; the pressure to pay the bills, to find the time to pick up kids, to make sure their kids are OK with their own pressures, to keep in touch with their parents, and get weekly errands done. The only privilege related to this more common scenario is the privilege of being alive. That’s an important privilege, maybe the most important privilege any of us has, but I don’t think that quote cuts the mustard when someone is feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday life.

Furthermore, to be honest, most of the everyday pressures the majority of us feel in the industrialized world pale into insignificance compared with those who struggle to find food and water for their families, who live in areas of civil unrest and armed conflicts. None of these pressures are a privilege in any way, shape of form. They are horrors perpetrated on people who have no say in their situation. It is all merely a question of survival in a world most of s cannot imagine.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that after analyzing this quote more fully, I’ve decided that while it may be a useful motivational phrase for elite tennis players and aspiring business leaders, it’s not as profound as it first sounds. A motivational quote in a similar vein that I believe can serve a much broader audience was posted on Facebook just last week:

“The best view comes after the hardest climb, so give that climb – whatever it is – all you’ve got and take in the view on the other side!”

Thanks for the full quote, Laura O’Blenis.

 

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10 Responses to Pressure is a privilege – really?

  1. K E Garland says:

    I appreciate your deconstructing that quote. At first, I was thinking what in the who hay does that even mean. It really didn’t resonate. But after you explained King’s reason for saying it and a deeper perspective of what pressure means today to the majority of people, well…I have to agree with you and that final quote is more apropos.

  2. Dr. John Persico Jr. says:

    Jane, I enjoyed your analysis and introspection of this quote very much. Funny, how some ideas can seem so profound but when you dissect them, they are not so applicable to the lives that many of us lead. I guess there is a big difference between those with special talents and those of us with more ordinary abilities. When I was young, I loved the quote that “mediocrity is the worst curse of all.” I found it very inspiring but later in my life, I realized that I was using it to whip myself and that trying to avoid mediocrity would never make me a success. John P.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, John, and welcome! Intriguing quote re mediocrity. I could write an analysis of that one! You’re right, that quote can easily and unfairly set people up for a fall. One person’s measure of mediocrity is another person’s view of exceeded expectations. I’m glad to know you moved beyond setting yourself up for disappointment! Your writing and thoughts certainly don’t disappoint me!! 😊

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    The most successful people actually relish the pressure I think. They feed off it. Look at the top politicians who, like them or not, seem to be energised by pressure, criticism. Me, I’ve spent my life avoiding it and am perfectly happy with how it’s turned out.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree with that assessment. And my sense is that many, many of those very successful people who thrive on the pressure view their position as their deserved or earned right rather than one of privilege. Those in leadership roles who get the privilege part of the equation are surely more likely to make decisions and carry out actions meant to serve more than just themselves and the bottom line.

  4. LA says:

    Good post. Very timely for me….and it is a great quote

  5. Kieran says:

    Very well said. I couldn’t agree more. Often these motivational quotes work for short-term selfish goals (being a champion) but don’t translate into “real life.” Everybody has their own version of a hard climb, and the struggle itself can give some purpose to our short lives.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Kieran. Exactly. The struggles people face, which can vary enormously, do give purpose to our lives. Facing personal struggles head on and dealing with them – overcoming them – can bring great satisfaction and personal reward. And there’s no sense that privilege is involved!

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