The Olympian wasn’t particularly athletic. He wasn’t in his teens or twenties. He wasn’t a medal winner, either.
Rubén González, a 49-year old man born in Argentina and raised in the U.S., whose most recent participation in the Olympics was last year, inspires audiences around the world with an unusual story of success. I met him at the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, a few weeks ago. I was stunned to hear the implausibility of his success and even more the counterintuitive path he took to achieve his dream.
From the time he was 10 years old, Rubén wanted to compete in the Olympics; but he did nothing about his dream for many years. As a soccer player, several coaches had told him that he was too slow on the field and as a result he spent most of the games on the bench. He wasn’t really good at any sport, and at 21 he realized he was running out of time to make his Olympic dream come true.
The way he eventually found his sport speaks volumes about his very uncharacteristic approach to success, one from which a lot can be learned.
Aware that he wasn’t particularly strong or athletic, Rubén looked for a sport that required skill and tenacity, a personal trait that had served him well in the past. You see, among his friends, Rubén was known as a bulldog because, once he grabbed onto something, he never let go. In other words, he never, ever quit.
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Looking for a sport that presented enough difficulties for others to quit often led him to the Luge, a sport that didn’t require athletic skill as much as mental control, putting up with broken bones, and the willingness to wear a leotard. When he called the training center in Lake Placid, they first tried to discourage him because of his age. After all, most kids started training at 10 and he was already 21. Rubén insisted until he was accepted in the program when he agreed to compete for Argentina.
Rubén went on to participate in four Olympics, qualifying within the top 30 or 40 best Luge athletes in the world. When he told me the story, I was intrigued not only by his very unique way of approaching a goal but also by his ability to recognize it and his willingness to talk about it openly.
He wasn’t looking for a medal; instead his dream was competing in the Olympics. He identified a trait that could help him achieve his goal and the medium (which he didn’t even like) with which to achieve the goal. He smartly planned his path and he won.
I wonder how many of us fight for our goals the wrong way: Following someone else’s path rather than one that is better suited for our own style.
How often do we fall for those recipes to achieve success that experts are busy outlining when the reality is that each one of us can only succeed in our own very personal way?
It’s useful to ask successful people about their goals and how they reached them in order to create an idea bank, not as a standard against which to measure our own success. Once we start identifying some of our strongest personal traits, we can more readily find our own way to achieve our goals without having to follow someone else’s magic recipe.
Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women's careers.