Success Through the Lens of ‘The Greatest’

July 1, 2016, Department, by Neelay Bhatt

What Ali did outside of the sport of boxing, to me, epitomizes the definition of success: making a difference in people’s lives. What do the former president of the United States, a Hollywood A-List star, a retired law enforcement officer from Washington, D.C., a neurosurgeon from Philadelphia, a college student from Boston, a homeless person from Louisville and an NRPA board member from Indianapolis have in common? We all recently found ourselves in Louisville to pay our last respects to the man simply known as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali.

On Success

As a three-time World Heavyweight Champion and an Olympic gold medalist (Rome 1960), by any measure of success, Ali was an incredibly successful boxer. But, was he really “The Greatest?” Statistically, he didn’t possess an undefeated record like Rocky Marciano or Floyd Mayweather Jr., nor was he the only three-time champion or a gold medal recipient. Yet, witnessing a global outpouring of grief and praise left no doubt that he was considered second-to-none. Ask people who revered him and they will tell you that this mourning was not just for Ali, the boxer, but for Ali, the person. People didn’t consider him “The Greatest” simply for the knockouts in the ring, but for what he did in life outside the ring including the 35-plus years since he left the sport. 

My Moment of Zen: What Ali did outside of the sport of boxing, to me, epitomizes the definition of success: making a difference in people’s lives. 

On Making a Difference

From talking a suicidal man off a ledge to successfully negotiating the release of American hostages from Saddam Hussein, supporting the plight of Sudan’s famine victims, and serving as the U.N. Messenger of Peace in Afghanistan, Ali helped improve people’s physical, mental and social well-being in tangible and intangible ways. 

My Moment of Zen: In so many ways, this is exactly what park and recreation professionals do in our communities. From teaching a child a life-saving skill to providing meals to hungry individuals, hosting events that bring a diverse community together and simply providing an opportunity for people to get out to a park, trail or playground, we positively impact lives every day! Be sure to remember that any time you compare yourself to someone else or wonder, “Am I really successful?” Anyone can make more money — it’s much harder to make a difference. 

On Failure

Just like everyone else, I have had my share of failures in life. In fact, some very spectacular failures and losses that often made me question whether I even had it in me anymore to succeed. These ranged from losing the final soccer match (and consequently the undefeated season) of my school career to failing to get into the undergraduate college of my choice, eventually failing in my classes and dropping out of college altogether. Thanks to a misplaced university application, I was also initially rejected by my graduate program at Ohio University, as well as rejected for several internship and job opportunities after graduation. In more than a decade of strategic, master and business planning in my role with PROS Consulting, Inc., I have repeatedly experienced failure when we weren’t selected for projects despite our best efforts. All these failures and losses, though, paled in comparison to losing my father and our family business at the age of 26. Where I am today is thanks to people who believed in me especially when I didn’t believe in myself. The support and words from the wise — “Don’t worry about those who talk behind your back…they are behind you for a reason” — were reminders to keep looking forward. Despite, or rather because of my failures, my journey (including four continents worth of professional experiences, three master’s degrees, two TEDx Talks and one lovable rogue of a son) has turned out just fine. 

My Moment of Zen: Personally and on behalf of NRPA’s Board of Directors, we are committed to help the next generation of park and recreation professionals and leaders. However, I highly recommend developing your personal board of directors (eight to 12 individuals) who would serve as your friends, guides, mentors and people who pick you up when you fail. The sudden loss of a loved one also underscored the importance of not chasing material success at the cost of time with dear ones. The most successful leaders I have seen focus on maintaining a balance between personal and professional lives by taking time away to recharge and rejuvenate themselves. 

What Will Be Your Greatest Success?

In one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history, at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, Ali served as the surprise guest to light the flame. With his hand shaking because of Parkinson’s disease, the simple 15-second act of holding the torch and lighting the fire seemed akin to fighting Joe Frazier for 15 rounds. For that one moment, as 3 billion people watched and rooted for him, successfully lighting the flame was Ali’s biggest success. 

My Moment of Zen: Seek your “lighting the flame” moment every day. It is not just about the long-term success, but also the little, incremental successes and the lives you positively impact along the way that make it all worthwhile. In Ali’s words, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Without a doubt, park and recreation professionals have and will continue to pay that rent many times over! 


Neelay Bhatt is Vice President at PROS Consulting Inc., and a member of the NRPA Board of Directors.