Serena Williams: ‘I don’t need more titles’

Doubles: Williams gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Alexis Olympia, last September.

What can Serena Williams teach us about the meaning of life? In an amazingly candid interview she claimed that career success no longer tops her priorities. Some see a moral here for us all.

Serena Williams is a superstar. She has won 23 grand slam singles titles. Some consider her the greatest female athlete ever. But in a revealing interview with Vogue magazine, she uncovered hidden depths beyond her ferocious cross-court winners.

A recurring theme of the interview was family. Serena has battled her sister, Venus, many times on the court. But she has struggled to bring her ruthless competitiveness to their matches. “[Venus] just looks sad if she’s losing...it breaks my heart,” she said. Serena’s solution was to stop looking at her sister entirely — focusing completely on the ball.

Now Serena has a family of her own, recently giving birth to a baby girl named Alexis. And despite a complicated labour that left her bedridden for six weeks, she is already plotting her return to the court: “I absolutely want more grand slams.”

However, in her most striking comments, she revealed that this desire for glory is no longer the most important factor in her life: “I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige,” she said, “knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match.”

To some this attitude will be no surprise. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson believed that all adults eventually draw most meaning from their lives by nurturing family relationships instead of achieving individual milestones.

But some argue that a smaller focus on personal glory is the key to happiness for all generations, not just parents. In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith claims that, overall, happiness does not come from “career achievement” but from being a “good, wise, and generous human being”.

And for more extreme thinkers the meaning of life could come from any source at all — as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “It is up to you to give [life] a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”

So should we all, like Serena, draw less meaning from our big achievements?

Personal best

Serena is right, some say. The most important thing for us all is to nourish relationships with others and become well-rounded human beings. Whether it be sporting achievement or careers, lives centred around just one thing will quickly grind to a halt if failure strikes. We must see meaning in life beyond the obvious signs of success.

What nonsense, others respond. The only way that people will better their lives is if they aspire to great heights. And sticking determinedly to one thing will make success more likely — how do you think Serena came to dominate the tennis world? There is no shame in making career goals your number one priority.

You Decide

  1. Which person, famous or not, do you most look up to?
  2. What makes human life meaningful?

Activities

  1. Write down the three things you care most about in the world. If you wish, share these thoughts with the class. Did any ideas come up many times? If so, what might this tell us about what society in general considers meaningful.
  2. Read the final link in Become An Expert concerning the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Once you have read the article write a definition of “existentialism” in ten words or less. Do you think his philosophy offers a good guide for finding meaning in life?

Some People Say...

“Tennis is just a game.”

Serena Williams

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the Vogue interview, Serena expressed her desire to win 25 grand slam singles titles. This would make her the most successful female tennis player ever, beating Margaret Court’s record of 24 slams. During her time away from tennis she has slipped down to 23rd in the world rankings, 18 places below Venus Williams in 5th.
What do we not know?
Although Serena has suggested she will return to competitive tennis, we do not know when this will be or how much longer she will compete for.

Word Watch

23 grand slam singles titles
Incredibly Serena was eight weeks pregnant when she won her last grand slam: the Australian Open in 2017. She has won the tournament seven times — the joint highest of all the slams alongside Wimbledon.
Venus
Venus Williams has won seven grand slam singles titles. She has been most successful at Wimbledon, winning the tournament five times.
Relationships
Erikson theorised that every human goes through eight stages of psychological development. The seventh stage is know as the “generative” period, in which adults seek happiness by securing the futures of the next generation — normally in the lives of their own children.
The Power of Meaning
Released by Crown Publishing Group, January 2017.
Being
To read more about Smith’s arguments follow the Quartz link in Become An Expert.
Jean-Paul Sartre
A French existentialist philosopher who lived from 1905 to 1980. Notable books include the philosophical novel Nausea (published 1938), and the work on the philosophy of consciousness and free will, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943).

Subjects