5 Lessons Serena Williams Has Taught Me About Friendship
Serena Williams was recently named Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. She is the first female athlete to receive this honor by the magazine in decades. While my knowledge about tennis (and sports in general) is very limited, it is no secret that Serena Williams is arguably the greatest living American athlete. From slaying matches back-to-back (sidebar: Hey Drake!), to ignoring body shamers, to speaking out about racism and sexism, to chasing down a cell phone thief—I have developed immense respect for Queen Serena over the years.
While reading the Sports Illustrated’s feature article on Williams though, it was not her approach to sportsmanship that caught my eye, but her approach to friendship. In particular, her relationship with Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, struck a nerve.
Without further ado, here are 5 lessons about friendship I gleaned from Serena Williams’s Sports Illustrated feature:
1. Say Yes To New Friends: After reading Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s best seller about women leaders, Serena Williams tweeted that Sandberg was the celebrity with whom she most wanted to have dinner. Sandberg reached out, and they met in December 2014 at a seafood restaurant in Florida. Now, it is common knowledge that Serena’s best friend is her sister Venus. Plus, she rolls with an entourage. Technically, Serena Williams doesn’t need new friends. Still, she put it out there that she would like to connect with Sandberg. Martha Stewart told SI that Williams “likes to hang out with success.” She’s no fool: like the Biblical proverb goes, iron sharpens iron. Sandberg, who is used to self-promoters, was struck by Williams’s curiosity. Williams kept asking her questions, and seeking to learn about technology. When we close our lives to new relationships, we miss out on new information, new experiences, and new possibilities. Forget what DJ Khaled said: say yes to new friends.
2. Pause To Be There: When Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg (former CEO of SurveyMonkey) suddenly died of head trauma during a vacation last May, Williams paused to be there for her new friend. Williams was playing the Madrid Open when she heard the news. She could have decided to wait till the tournament was over to reach out, or she could have had an assistant send some flowers and call it a day. After all, they only recently met. Instead, she immediately posted her condolences on Facebook, and when that didn’t seem enough, she reached out to Sandberg personally. Sandberg told SI: “I just kept getting these messages from Serena, every couple of days—for months…texts, messages, voice mails…” It is easy to get caught up in our own personal drama, but Williams reminds me to pause to be there for my friends—not just once or twice, but consistently.
3. Show Up: Once Williams returned from Europe, she showed up at Sandberg’s California home, and more than once she helped her put her two children to bed. In this hyper-digital world we live in, showing up physically is becoming a lost art. We can go months without seeing friends we live in the same city with (I know I can be guilty of this!). Yet, there’s something about physical presence that FaceTime, Skype, BBM, Whatsapp, social media and text messages can never replace.
4. Share Your Stories: During Williams’s conversations with Sandberg, she opened up to her about her experience losing her oldest sister, Yetunde Price, who was shot to death in Compton in 2003. She also told Sandberg’s children about her Indian Wells story. Indian Wells is a tournament Williams had vowed to boycott permanently after the largely white audience booed her throughout an entire match (she was nineteen years old at the time). She told them about the hurt she felt, and her decision to make good of life’s bad and move on. I have always believed that my stories, both good and bad are not just for me alone. There is so much healing that can come from a “been there, survived that.” “Me too!” can be a holy refrain. We all have stories that can benefit someone else—let’s share them more.
5. Loan Your Strength: Sandberg says when Serena sent her text messages, she would write: ‘You have all my strength’ or ‘You are the strongest woman I know. You will get through this.’ This brought tears to my eyes. As a member of Tribe Strong Women, I know what it feels like to be forgotten because people assume you are fine. I know what it feels like to give your strength to so many, and feel utterly unable to rise from the ground in your own down moments. Sometimes the strong need to be reminded of their strength. Sandberg says she would feel like Serena was carrying her when she got those texts. What if we women loaned each other our strength more often? What if we learned to carry our sisters? Oh the difference it would make.
You can read the full Sports Illustrated article on Serena Williams here.