The insane wisdom of Serena Williams

This is what growth mindset looks like in defeat

Muffie Waterman
Jul 17, 2018 · 3 min read

Serena Williams, new mom, arguably the greatest tennis player ever, did not win Wimbledon.

In her courtside interview immediately following the final, a smiling, tired, delighted, occasionally emotion-choked Williams had gracious things to say. Her comments about playing for all the moms garnered a lot of press. It’s a great story, of course, with Williams competing at world-class level only 10 months after giving birth. That’s an almost unimaginable achievement, and well worth celebrating.

Still, I was more impressed by the other things she had to say.

Williams expressed appreciation for what she had accomplished, she voiced the joy of the competition, genuine congratulations to her competitor, and thanks for the support of the crowd. She epitomized the grace and ease that comes from a positive outlook.

1. “I was really happy to get this far.”

Too often, self-acceptance is falsely contrasted with accomplishment, as if being ok with a loss indicates a lack of commitment or acceptance of mediocrity. But they don’t have to be in opposition at all. Be in it for the competition, whether with yourself or against others. Shoot as far as you can, and be happy with doing your best. You can’t always win. There is no disgrace in loss well-played, and much to be grateful for in hard-fought competition.

2. “It’s obviously disappointing, but I can’t be disappointed.”

In one simple phrase, Williams uttered the single most important growth mindset statement I have ever heard.

It *is* disappointing to lose. There’s no need to gloss over that. Loss, and its close cousins pain and grief, are real. They deserve to be acknowledged. They don’t need to be owned however. Losing doesn’t make you a loser. Disappointment in the game doesn’t mean you have to be disappointed in yourself. It’s a subtle, yet life-altering, distinction.

3. “No, I’m just me. And that’s all I can be.”

Radical self-acceptance might be easier for Williams, who has won more grand slam titles than any other tennis player in history, male or female (39 total — 23 singles, 14 doubles, and 2 mixed doubles). Like any new mother, though, Williams is also learning that she has new things to learn about herself. Responding to the interviewer’s awe-filled “You’re superhuman!” Williams countered with a simple awareness of human limitation. It’s not just false humility: self-understanding prepares us to grow and flourish.

4. “I look forward to being out here and doing what I do best.”

Living with optimism takes commitment. Looking forward is a key part of that. “Looking forward” to something implies enjoying the prospect, anticipating it with pleasure. “Looking forward” also literally means to be forward-looking. Both aspects carry us beyond the moment, enabling us to envision a future of success, or joy, or the fruition of our efforts. Knowing our own strengths, and being able to see our future selves engaged in them is the basis for hope.

Roadmap to wellbeing

In this brief interview with Serena Williams, I see a road map to wellbeing:

Not in a trite kind of way, but in a world-class, Wimbledon kind of way.

Muffie Waterman

Written by

mother of 2 teens, Ph.D. in Learning Sciences, Author of Wired to Listen: What Kids Learn from What We Say. Figuring life out as I go