Paddy Upton

In the shadows of the limelight – Part 3 of 3

The final part in this series takes us back into the light; exploring the journey towards personal and professional success, sincere relationships, lasting contentment and an all-round purposeful life.

During his playing days, Gary Kirsten made the observation that as a professional sportsman, “Ego makes showing emotion, vulnerability and weakness taboo, while what becomes important is pride, a sense of belonging, adopting the values of society, and living up to the public’s perceptions and expectations1.”

With a newly found awareness of these somewhat common trappings of fame, he went on to ask, “If not this, then what is it that I am looking for?”

His answer (in 2004), “I’m searching for the authentic Gary Kirsten – someone who is accepting of his shortcomings and is confident in the knowledge of who he is. One who is not locked into the perceptions of society, but one who is willing to have a positive influence and add value to society in my own unique way. I want to make a difference to people’s lives and give them similar opportunities that I have had. My perception of success is not about how much money I can earn in the next 10 years, but rather what impact I made on people I came into contact with1.”

Gary had spent thousands of hours mastering his stroke play, which had brought him great success and recognition. To this pursuit of professional mastery he added personal mastery. Today Kirsten often says that when the heat is on in test cricket, it’s not your skill but your character that is being tested.

In life as in cricket, it’s who you are inside, your character and your values, rather than what you do, what results you achieve or possessions you gain that will determine your true contentment, enduring success and how you will ultimately be remembered.

Sachin Tendulkar is a cricketer who has long pursued personal mastery alongside mastering his profession. He mentions, “When I meet someone, they will remember the impact I have on them as a person long after they have forgotten my statistics2.” The respect for Tendulkar extends well beyond his statistics, as does his own contentment.

Personal mastery is many things to many people. It is a journey towards living successfully as an all-round human being, a tapping into your full potential. It is a commitment to learning about yourself, your mind and emotions in all situations. It is a strengthening of character and deepening of personal values, like the roots of a tree. It is an increased awareness of self, others and the world around us; living from the inside out, not the outside in. Peter Senge, one of the original authors of personal mastery defines it as “the discipline of personal growth and learning3.” It is also a pursuit that seems to command relatively little interest in the world of ‘celebrity-dom’.

This concept may already be sounding too touchy-feely for the John Rambo’s and Chuck Norris’s out there. Before dismissing the concept, know it translated to Kirsten’s most successful international season; it underpins Amla’s remarkable performances, and grounds Tendulkar’s extraordinary fame. There are others like them.

Conversely the lack of personal mastery has undermined many celebrities’ personal and/or professional lives. Have you heard about the guy who was a brilliant batsman, but whose peers think he is an idiot, and after retirement had no mates? Or the guy who had such talent and opportunity, but never managed to deliver on it? We will never know of all the failures that may have looked to be caused by a technical error, but which were actually caused by a lack in character or strength of mind, causing the player to repeatedly succumb to the fear of failure and how it would reflect on them. We all know how ‘greats’ like Hansie Cronje, Mike Tyson, Ben Johnson, Mohammad Azharuddin, Salman Butt, Marianne Williams, Diego Maradona, Lance Armstrong and even Tiger Woods might be remembered.

As with any journey, there is always a map. The same applies to personal mastery.

Personal mastery is a shift in attitude that drives a shift in behaviour. It deepens the roots of one’s life, making the tree grow taller and healthier, and holding it firm in the face of inevitable adversity, challenges and stormy weather.

Personal mastery is a shift in attitude…

From placing an over-importance on results to placing importance on the processes that set up the best chance of success; from defining one’s contentment by results, to deriving contentment from the effort made in the pursuit of that result;

From worrying about what others think about you, to knowing that what others think about you is none of your business. There are people who don’t like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, never mind Jesus, Buddha or Prophet Mohammad, so what makes you so special that everyone should like you?

It is a shift from the importance of outwardly looking good, to the importance of inner substance and strength of character. It is not about trying to be a good person, but allowing the good person in you to emerge;

Protea cricketer, Wayne Parnell, embarked on the journey of personal mastery through his change in faith at the age of 22. His journey included shifting from worrying about poor results, sulking and throwing tantrums to accepting the outcome, with mild disappointment, and maturely seeking the possible lesson for the next time;

Personal mastery is a shift from thinking you have the answers, to knowing you have much to learn. From balancing talking and telling with listening and asking. People who think they’re ‘important’ seldom ask questions;

From pretending to be strong and in control and covering up ignorance, faults and vulnerabilities, to acknowledging these normal human fallibilities while still remaining self-confident. The current Proteas team now openly acknowledges that they have choked in big tournaments in the past, and they’re not choked up by this acknowledgement;

When things go wrong, it is a shift from pointing fingers and blaming others, to taking responsibility. It is first asking ‘What was my part in this?’ before looking elsewhere. It’s a shift from being reactive, to being proactive; from withdrawing or getting pissed off by criticism, to accepting that it’s one of the few things that help us grow;

It is about developing social, emotional and spiritual intelligence in addition to building muscle and sporting intelligence; in the way that Kirsten added the journey of personal mastery to that of professional mastery;

It is a shift from an attitude of expecting things to come to you, to earning your dues through your own effort; and then having an attitude of gratitude for what does come. A lesson that seems to have gone astray in some parts of South African society.

It’s a shift from focusing on yourself, to gaining awareness of what is going on for others and the world around you. No everyone is naturally compassionate, but everyone can be aware. Parnell highlights how much more he is becoming aware of what is going on for others around him, of how they are feeling, compared to previously having had an over-focus on himself.

Personal mastery is a shift from expecting to be told what to do to taking responsibility for doing what needs to be done. A shift towards becoming your own best teacher as you learn more deeply about your game, your mind and your life, in a way that works best for you. Kirsten insists that players make decisions for themselves, that bowlers set their own fields, and batters take responsibility for their game plans, decisions and executions. Off the field there are no rules to govern behaviour, no curfews, no eating do’s and dont’s and no fines system. Players are asked to take responsibility for making good decisions for themselves, at least most of the time.

Personal mastery is about pursuing success rather than trying to avoid failure. It is an acceptance that failure paves the path towards learning and success. It’s important that leaders are ok their players mistakes! Almost every sports coach I have watched display visible signs of disappointment when a player makes a mistake. I wonder if these same coaches tell their players to go and fully express themselves? If they do, then their words and their actions do not line up – and it’s their reaction that speaks more loudly than their words. Show me a coach who reacts negatively to mistakes, and I will show you a team who plays with a fear of failure.

It is about knowing and playing to your strengths, rather than dwelling on your weaknesses, knowing that developing strengths builds success far more effectively than fixing weaknesses does. If you’re a good listener, it’s about being even better, or if you’re naturally compassionate, it’s about fully living into this gift.

It requires an awareness of how you conduct yourself in relation to basic human principles such as integrity, honesty, humility, respect and doing what is best for all. It means having an awareness of and deliberately living personal values as one goes about one’s business. It’s about knowing how one day you want to be remembered as a person – and then living that way today!

When a top athlete does well, it’s about receiving the praise fully, and expressing gratitude in equal proportion, knowing that no athlete achieves success without the unseen heroes that support them. Praise plus gratitude equals humility. One only need listen to Hashim Amla receiving a man-of-the-match award to witness humility.

Personal mastery is a path that leads through all of life, bringing improved performances on the field and a more contented and rewarding life off of it. It’s a journey out of the shadows of the ego and into the light of awareness; it’s a daily commitment, not a destination. It may not be for John Rambo or Chuck Norris, but it works for most.

The bonus is that while personal mastery leads to a happier and more rewarding existence, it is leads to better sport performance. Gary Kirsten adds, ‘I spent years fighting a mental battle with my perceived lack of skill. Towards the end of my career I dropped this, as well trying to live up to others expectations. I went on to score 5 test centuries and have my best year ever. As a coach, I now know that managing myself and others well, being aware of who I am being and why I do things, is of far more importance than technical knowledge of the game4.”

Another fairly successful and likable international cricketer who knows the importance of personal mastery states: “Who I am as a person, my nature is permanent, my results on the field are temporary – they will go up and go down. It is more important that I am consistent as a person, this I can control, my results I cannot”. He adds that “people will criticise me for my results, and will soon forget them, but they will always remember the impact I have on them as a person. This will last forever2.” His name is Sachin Tendulkar.


Feb, 2004. Written in a personal letter to me, after one particular coaching session. Published here with Gary’s approval.
Sept, 2009. Personal interview with myself, recorded in a document to the Indian National Team. “Raising the bar – Taking our game and our lives to even greater heights.”
Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline, 1990. Doubleday/Currency. ISBN 0-385-26094-6
Personal interview with me, approved by Kirsten for this specific publication.

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