Roger Federer is an original. He has designed the life he loves, often doing what is counterintuitive to being a champion. He is a family man. He is too old to be a tennis champion. He is a calm, modest personality, even though he is the longest reigning No. 1 tennis player.
Federer walks to the beat of his own drum. He is driven by his personal values and this, in turn, makes him a different kind of champion. But how does he do it? Here is what I've determined -- and you don't need to be a superhuman to do them, too.
1. He stays true to himself.
Federer is perhaps the most elegant player in tennis. New York Times calls his game "languid" which is a beautiful way of saying he can seem relaxed and unhurried in the midst of all the speed and the intense pressure to win. Akash Kapur's description in the New Yorker of his style being reminiscent of a bygone era captures it beautifully--
"The talent--that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience--comes first. Federer's smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men's tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties."
And even though the game has changed--it is so much more about muscle power and equipment today--Federer remains true to his style and continues to win by being himself.
2. He is a constant learner.
There are 5 years between Federer's 2012 and 2017 Wimbledon Grand Slam. Anyone else would've given up. He didn't. For a long while he was under the shadow of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, but then he figured out how to emerge. He has lost many times to Nadal, his "eternal tormentor," as CBS Sports calls him, but Federer patiently learned how to play against Nadal and won. He is a constant learner.
"Federer has already proved that he can learn new tennis tricks at an advanced age, having come back from knee surgery and a six-month layoff, the longest of his career, to win the Australian Open in January. He has already proved that he can drive his single-handed backhand with new commitment and find an antidote to Nadal, having beaten him three straight times on hardcourts this year." -Christopher Clarey, The New York Times
3. He balances work and life.
Instead of competing at the exclusion of everything, Federer has created a work-life balance. When he had his knee injury, he spent most of his time with his family, traveling and being in nature in Australia and Switzerland. When he competes, his wife and their four kids stay with him, most recently at the Wimbledon village in 2017. In fact, he has said that he couldn't do it without his family. Tennis is important but it is not everything.
4. He puts the hours in.
Federer is not the best server in the game but he has the best return. At the speed the game is played, there is no time to consciously plan an attack. Federer anticipates his opponent's return, almost intuitively, before the brain can truly process it. It is as if he sees what we cannot see.
This is what Malcolm Gladwell calls "the feel for the game." It is the result of practicing endlessly which, according to Gladwell, creates a consistency. Psychologists also call this "chunking" -- our ability to combine things that go together and store them in our memory as one unit. Chunking might well be the secret behind Federer's ability to see his opponent's game and respond to it an almost superhuman way.
"What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do -- their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss." Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
5. He exhibits joy.
Perhaps what distinguishes Federer from everyone else is the pure joy with which he plays the game. Watching him you can feel the way he loves tennis. Which in turn gives us joy. We want to be around people who are happy doing what they love. They inspire us by example to strive for a similar feeling and attitude in our own work.
An original life is one that's lived on a foundation of your own values. In that, Federer is a true original.
Do you know of people who lead original lives? I am always on the look out for them (I've even started a podcast about them) and would love to hear from you.