What Serena Williams can teach us about success

Written by on May 4, 2023

Serena Williams is always motivated to excel at what she does, whether she’s taking on the role of an athlete, a mother or an entrepreneur. While most of us will never end up on the national stage like she has, we all have our own goals and hopes for ourselves. So, what can we learn from Serena Williams about how to chase those dreams?

Success comes from hard work

If there’s one thing we know about Serena Williams, it’s that she knows how to work hard. She’s never been shy about how much she pushes herself to be better in every way. When asked about her success, she has never put down to luck what can be explained by blood, sweat and tears.

Serena Williams 2018 French Open
Serena Williams celebrates victory in her third-round match against Juia Gorges at the 2018 French Open. Her success, she says, has nothing to do with luck. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come,” she told ESPN.

It’s not fun, and it’s not easy, but if we want to achieve our dreams, the first and most important thing we have to do is put in the work. We can daydream all we want, but that isn’t going to get us where we want to go.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t some element of luck involved. Even Williams admitted to waiting for her “one moment in time.” Sometimes, success does depend on meeting the right person at the right time or finding the right job opening in the right place. But preparing and putting in the hard work comes first, because we can’t seize a moment if we aren’t already equipped to jump in with both feet when it comes.

So, let’s practice, put in the work and pour our souls into what we’re doing; we’ll stand ready for life to hand us lemons by setting up that lemonade press to turn it into lemonade.

Learn from failure

All the hard work and talent in the world won’t shield us from failure, but our success can come from failure and from how we learn from it.

“I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall,” Williams told The National.

Serena Williams in Day Two: The Championships - Wimbledon 2021
When she falls, Serena Williams says, “I just get up and dust myself off and I pray.” Here, she reacts at Wimbledon in 2021. An injury in the first round, against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, forced her to retire from the match. (Photo by AELTC/Jed Leicester – Pool/Getty Images)

She went on to say: “I have fallen several times. Each time I just get up and dust myself off and I pray, and I’m able to do better or I’m able to get back to the level that I want to be on.”

We can’t expect perfection from ourselves. If even Serena Williams faces failure, what makes us think we’re any different? So, if we can’t avoid failure, how can we learn from it?

The best thing to do after failure (and after possibly having a good cry about it) is to look back at what went wrong and fix what we can. Sometimes, a failure stems from something out of our control. But what is in our control is ours to fix and ours to improve. And building on the mindset of hard work means that we can’t let failure stop us from building momentum toward our dreams.

Don’t listen to the haters

Over the course of her career, Williams has had to deal with people putting her down because of her race, her gender and her body. Instead of listening to people who only want to spit in the face of her success, she has stayed focused on what really matters.

Serena Williams NYFW SS '23 theGrio.com
With four ball girls in tow, Serena Williams opens the Vogue World runway show in New York in September. To endure negative comments, she says, “People have to be in love with who they are.” (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images for Vogue)

“People have to be in love with who they are, and it doesn’t matter what people say. Negative comments, you’re going to have those naysayers and those people who are unhappy and that kind of hide behind a computer. Or not hide at all. People are bold nowadays, who cares. But strong is beautiful. And it’s powerful,” she told Time.

We might not have people trying to make us feel bad about ourselves on a national stage like Williams has had to deal with, but there’s no doubt that we’ll face negativity no matter what we do. And we can either succumb to the harsh criticism or rise above it.

Of course, we’re often our own worst enemies and our own worst critics. If the negativity we’re trying to escape is coming from within, here’s one more Serena Williams quote that might help, from the same Time interview:

“I literally was born with this most amazing body, and to be historic, and to [be] amazing, and to be badass. And if anyone doesn’t like it, then they don’t have to. Because at the end of the day, I like it.”

So, let’s find something we like about ourselves. We’ll start talking to ourselves as nicely as we would talk to others. And let’s stop tearing ourselves down and doing the haters’ work for them.

At the 2018 U.S. Open final in New York, where she faced Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams talks to referee Brian Earley about umpire Carlos Ramos. She asserted that Ramos was treating her differently than he would treat male players. (Photo by Adam Hunger, AP, File)

Believe in and stand up for yourself

Once we’ve silenced our inner haters, the next step is building ourselves up and standing up for ourselves. And we all know that Serena Williams has no problem doing that.

“You have to believe in yourself when no one else does,” she told the 2020 graduating class at Mouratoglou Academy.

We often hear people telling us to believe in ourselves, but what does that mean, exactly? What does self-assurance look like?

Sometimes, believing in yourself might mean taking a stand or making a scene, like when Williams called out umpire Carlos Ramos in 2018 during the U.S. Open final, accusing him of treating her differently than he would treat male players. Where she saw an injustice, she knew she needed to correct it and make sure she was being treated the way she knew she deserved to be.

2020 Women's ASB Classic: Day 7
Serena Williams holds daughter Alexis Olympia in January 2020, after winning the final match against Jessica Pegula at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. After giving birth in 2018, Williams had to press to get attention for a health crisis, trusting her gut over initial medical professionals’ skepticism. She then became an advocate for maternal health (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Other times, believing in yourself might literally mean believing your gut even if no one else is paying attention. After giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, Williams knew something was wrong with her body. Even though medical personnel initially ignored her, she insisted on being heard. Eventually, doctors discovered a blood clot in her lungs. If she hadn’t trusted herself, she very well might not have survived.

While we might not ever face a life-or-death situation like that, we can take one lesson from Williams’ hardship: We have to find the strength to be our own advocate. And then, we can turn around and advocate for each other, as Williams has done in speaking out about the threat of maternal mortality.

We can motivate each other

Success doesn’t have to be earned alone. We can work together as families and as communities to lift each other up and achieve our dreams. This is especially true for people like Serena Williams, who had to break barriers in order to get where she is.

When asked by Glamour to give advice to young girls during the 2015 Women of the Year Awards, Williams focused on finding strength in togetherness: “The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.”

Serena Williams Naomi Osaka TheGrio
“The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another,” says Serena Williams (right). Here, she comforts Naomi Osaka after the 2018 U.S. Open final. Osaka won the title against the legend she said inspired her. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA)

Even if we do everything right, work hard, learn from our failures and tune out the haters and self-hate, we will most likely still need help to find success. And that’s OK! Community is part of what makes us human; we can be even better if we start looking for ways to build each other up and learn to accept other people’s help in return. And maybe we might find some solace in knowing that we don’t have to do everything by ourselves.

So, no matter what it is we’re reaching for, let’s take a page out of Serena Williams’ book and settle in for some hard work, self-love and persistence. And then, let’s turn around and lift each other up.

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