What I’m trying to learn from Muhammad Ali

"I am the greatest."

“I am the greatest.”

On Saturday I spotted a poster of Muhammad Ali in the window of a karate school. It read, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”

Think about that for a moment. First: I am the greatest. Then: I said that even before I KNEW I WAS.

That’s two slaps of confidence for the price of one. In the first place, you have to be audacious to say to yourself “I am the greatest” before you even know what that is, or how you will come by this greatness. In the second place, to feel at some point in your career or your life that you in fact are “the greatest” is another kind of confidence entirely. Some might even call that arrogance.

But as an up and coming writer (or artist, or athlete, or anything, really), when you are still unproved and no one knows who you are, you only have belief in yourself. In the beginning, there are no acceptance letters, no encouraging agents, no book deals, no paychecks, and no accolades, even if you have the backing of family and friends. (Sidebar: my mother loves to tell me that she has more confidence in me than I have in myself. While this is undoubtedly true, and gives me the warm and fuzzies, it’s not particularly helpful.) The publishing biz is a tough slog, and you are often alone in it for years, watching the success and perceived happiness of others. It’s not an environment that breeds confidence. The opposite, rather. To have confidence, even marginally, even occasionally, in the face of the uncertainty of ever “making it” is a triumph.

So Ali may have been on to something. To say “I am the greatest” to yourself may be the difference between feeling you can’t do it and giving up, and imagining that you can do it long enough for you to actually become great. Whatever that is.

Repeat after me: I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest!

Now get out there and punch someone in the face. Um, I mean, punch some words on your keyboard? Oh, just go write something.

4 thoughts on “What I’m trying to learn from Muhammad Ali

  1. Allegro non tanto says:

    I really loved this post because you hit the nail on the head. As artists we are ALWAYS our own worst critic. Sometimes this self doubt even stops us from creating, as we often repeat to ourselves, “Why bother?” I guess we just have to learn to create for the sake of our own happiness and fulfillment and hopefully through this process we’ll uncover this greatness that hides inside each and everyone of us.

  2. Karen says:

    This reminds me of a great TED talk about “power posing”:

    Essentially the idea is that by physically posing in what are considered “powerful” positions, you trick your brain into FEELING more powerful.

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