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The Roots of Success: Humility, Curiosity, Purpose

What young people can teach us about excellence and achievement.

Key points

  • Observe young people carefully because they just might teach you a thing or two about how to approach your life and how to be successful.
  • Successful people display characteristics of an exceptional approach to sports and life at a surprisingly youthful age.
  • Elements of greatness often displayed by successful people in their youth include humility, a thirst for learning, and a single-minded purpose.
Photo from Wiki Common, photographer unknown, the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection
James A. Garfield, 20 President of the United States
Source: Photo from Wiki Common, photographer unknown, the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

“I never meet a boy in the street without feeling that I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under his coat,” mused James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States.

Let’s rephrase to include the other half of humanity:

I never meet a youth in the street without feeling that I may owe them a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under their coat.

Hundreds of young people have crossed my path as a summer camp worker, coach, educator, and psychologist, many of them achieving remarkable life success.

A partial sampling of those kids includes comedians Molly Shannon and Kym Whitley; the host of “American Ninja Warriors”, Matt Iseman; the president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tucker Caine; the chief economic advisor to Donald Trump, Gary Cohn; the president of Goldman-Sachs, John Waldron; and former Secretary of the United States Navy, Thomas Modly.

President Garfield nailed it; you just never know.

No Credit, Just Gratitude

I claim zero credit for the accomplishments of the people we will discuss herein. I was just privileged to have had them pass my way and for what I learned from them.

What did they have in common? An exemplary approach to life, even as kids.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

Please understand that I know none of the individuals mentioned from my professional psychology practice.

A Future Professional Athlete

A scrawny 11-year-old boy showed up from a younger league as a replacement player on my short-handed 1990 summer league baseball team. Little did I know that he would reach the pinnacle of what every baseball-playing kid dreams about—a Major League career.

Matt Guerrier was one of the youngest, smallest kids on the 14u baseball team (along with Ben Simon) I coached in 1991 and didn’t play much that season, batting just eight times over a 25-game schedule. Though Matt had to be disappointed, not an ounce of annoyance or anger showed. He practiced hard, didn’t complain, and maintained a great relationship with Coach Udelf.

How did Matt maintain such a great attitude under those circumstances? He was unselfish and all about the team. Team first, Matt second. A total dedication to getting better and an unrelenting work ethic also helped. He spent countless hours at the schoolyard, practicing with passion and pure joy.

Matt was a prime example of playing for the love of the game.

Matt was the Swiss Army knife of the team in his second year, playing catcher, infield, and outfield. When asked to give pitching a try, he did it without reservation. His willingness to try a new position was a first step to a Major League pitching career.

His high school career ended with being named Ohio High School Pitcher-of-the-Year in 1996. Matt was selected to be the starting pitcher for the state high school all-star game but did not go to the game because his summer team had a practice that day.

“I had to go to practice to get ready for a game we had the next day,” Guerrier explained, on why he skipped all-star festivities. “Awards and all-star games are about the past, I focus on now.”

He had the same attitude towards letter jackets. He didn’t own the school jacket and had no idea where his four letters were. “I think my mom put them someplace, but I don’t know where,” he said when asked about them.

Humility is just a talking point with many athletes. Matt lived it. He wasn’t about showing off his accomplishments.

Teammates loved playing behind Matt in youth and high school baseball, and at the collegiate level at Kent State University. Why? Because of his unselfish, competitive, I’ll-do-anything for the team approach.

That trend continued during his 11-year Major League Baseball career with the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs, from 2004 to 2014.

Guerrier currently serves as pitching coach for Briarwood High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

A Bright Future

A friend was starting a summer baseball team for his 12-year-old son’s classmates and asked if I could give the rookie coach, a quarterback at John Carroll University, a few coaching pointers.

The new coach showed up to our first meeting armed with a pen, notebook, humility, and an eagerness to learn. He didn’t show the brash over-confidence displayed by many in his age group. Humility allowed him to ask questions about the challenges of coaching 12-year-old boys, handling their parents, and other related subjects. He listened intently, taking detailed notes.

At our final meeting, I said “I don’t know what you’ll end up doing in life, but whatever it is you’re going to be successful. With a surprised look, he thanked me for my comment and time.

Who is this mystery coach?

He is Nick Caserio, the general manager of the Houston Texans, who previously served a 13-year stint as the director of player personnel for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots.

 Photo compliments of Lelia True
Young Lelia True (right), first-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy with U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes (deceased), True's sponsor to West Point.
Source: Photo compliments of Lelia True

A Pioneer

Lelia True was a 13-year-old member of a youth baseball team I coached in the 1970s. She was one of the first two girls that season to play in what had been an all-boys league, a tough, pioneering role for a young teenager that had never played organized sports.

Undaunted, Lelia demonstrated a single-minded desire to learn and compete, going about her work with a quiet diligence and persistence that silently said, “get out of the way, here I come”

Lelia worked her way up the lineup, earning league all-star honors that season. She is unquestionably the most coachable kid I’ve had in my 53-year coaching career.

She went on to play two varsity sports—softball, and tennis—at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

After graduation, Lelia served for 21 years in the U.S. Army, earning a Bronze Star while commanding a tactical communications company during Operation Desert Storm. She followed that with a 20-year career in the corporate world. True now serves as Head-of-School of the esteemed Washington (D.C.) Waldorf School, an educational institution serving pre-school through high-school-aged students.

“I’m going to figure it out,” Lelia explained of her lifelong approach to challenges in a recent interview. “That is one of my strongest points—I’m gonna figure it out. I’m looking, watching, and seeing. It doesn’t matter what it is, I’m looking to win. It may sound crass, but that’s what it is.”

Not crass, just bulldog determination and commitment.

Lelia’s quote nicely captures what she, Matt Guerrier, and Nick Caserio all had buttoned up underneath their young coats: Humility, a thirst to learn and improve, and a single-minded dedication to succeed. They weren't like so many young people, who are too preoccupied with attention-seeking antics and chasing popularity to prioritize what really matters.