This is a story about hard work, dashed dreams, and emotional intelligence. It's the kind of thing you'll find in my free e-book, Emotional Intelligence 2021 (download here), and it all played out this week against an Olympic backdrop.
It's about what happened to world-class sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson, who came so close to reaching the pinnacle of her athletic dreams after dominating the U.S. Olympic trials, only to test positive for marijuana and then lose her spot at the Olympics in Tokyo as a result.
Before any of the details of her situation use came out, however, Richardson took to Twitter to give her side of the story.
It was short, it was sweet, and it was a powerful display of emotional intelligence. She had only three words: "I am human."
In interviews afterward, Richardson, 21, explained some of what was going on in her life: pressure to excel on the track, combined with the fact that she had just learned -- from a reporter, no less, a "complete stranger" -- that her biological mother had passed away.
I'm going to respect Richardson's privacy about the details of her family situation, but it's not hard to imagine that this was an extremely stressful situation.
So, can you imagine what it would be like to be Richardson? To have heard this news, to have reacted this way, to have had your dreams come crashing down -- and to know that when it came out, it was going to disappoint your closest loved ones, along with your fans?
It was a very tall order. But those three words were so effective, especially when she followed up on them later with similar messages on the Today show and elsewhere.
- First, because it broadcast her vulnerability. Richardson didn't complain, or make excuses; she simply accepted what she had done and what the consequences would be.
- Second, because she kept it short. There's no parsing and deducing to be done here, no real chance of anyone taking the wrong message away, no: "Oh, but what I meant to say was ..."
- Third, because it inspired empathy. I can't imagine any feeling person reading that tweet and not thinking of times he or she has come up short, too. That reflection naturally leads to an attempt to imagine what this must be like for her -- the very definition of empathy.
- Fourth, because her word choice was holistic. Often, we people say, "I am only human," with the emphasis on the word "only." But by skipping it here, I think Richardson's statement contained an inviting note of self-acceptance and pride.
- Finally, it invited intimacy. She literally used the word "human," encouraging people to remember that she isn't just a young track star, or a near-celebrity, or a would-be Olympian; she's a human being, just like all of us.
Now, there is an enormous caveat here. Richardson's statement and attitude worked because she's accused of something most people in the United States don't think should be banned anyway.
Marijuana is legal in Oregon, where the trials were held. A majority of Americans think it should be legal everywhere. Many were surprised to hear that it's even on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances to begin with.
Plus, as Richardson herself was at pains to make clear in her interviews: This wasn't about steroids or performance-enhancing drugs.
It was about a drug that I don't think anyone believes would enhance an athlete's abilities.
I often write that emotional intelligence can lead to empathy, which can lead to being nicer and kinder to other people. But being nice is not really necessarily the point.
Instead, it's about learning to handle your emotions, and improving the chance of achieving your goals. Whether by instinct or design, that's something Richardson seems to have accomplished here.
Richardson is now suspended through the date of the her signature event, the 100-meter dash in Tokyo. But she still has two chances:
- First, the chance to compete in a later relay event, which might give her at least a taste of Olympic glory.
- And, given that she's only 21, she could very well have several other Olympic opportunities in the future.
Reacting as she did this week brought a lot of people into her corner, which improves the odds of either or both of those things happening. That's why it's all a gold medal-worthy lesson for anyone who wants to improve their emotional intelligence.