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.
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.
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 or 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.