by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Jim Harbaugh, coach of the national champion Michigan Wolverines football team, is famous for, among other things, motivating his players with an old family motto, “Who’s got it better than us?”  It’s a phrase that works on multiple levels, and just as it helped a football team push through the highs and lows of a long season to achieve their ultimate goal, so, too, it is a perfect mantra to keep in mind when leading others through a challenging season of ministry.  Read on and see if you agree.

The “Who’s got it better than us?” catchphrase was one that the Harbaugh brothers (Jim and John) heard repeated regularly by their dad, Jack, as Coach Jim related a few years ago to The Players’ Tribune:

Its roots are to remind the two to always be grateful, a message they have subsequently tried to instill into their players.

Jim explained the root of the slogan in an article for The Player’s Tribune in 2016.

“When I was growing up, there was a local car dealer in Ann Arbor that had a program where the coaches at Michigan got to drive the extra dealer cars,” Harbaugh wrote. “We didn’t have much money, and we didn’t have a car of our own, so my parents shared the dealer car. Sometimes my dad, brother and I would walk outside and the car would be in the driveway. Other times, if my mom was out, it wasn’t.

“‘Hey Dad, where’s the car?’

“’No car today, guys. We’re walking … Grab a basketball: 100 with the right, 100 with the left. Let’s go!’

“So we’d dribble down the sidewalk, dad leading the way, yelling: ‘Who’s got it better than us?!’

“‘Me and my brother trailing behind, chanting: ‘No-body!'”

You can see there that the motto works on more than one level.  It was used by the family in good times, like sitting around the table at Thanksgiving or after winning a big game, but it was also employed with equal vigor in demanding or disappointing times when things weren’t going as expected.

It’s interesting to contrast it with an aphorism favored by coach Mike McDaniels, whose Miami Dolphins flamed out in spectacular fashion during the NFL playoffs.  He likes to motivate his team with the phrase “Adversity is opportunity.”  But while they had plenty of adversity as the season ground on, they weren’t able to turn the resulting “opportunities” into success.  Of course, we can all benefit from using times of trouble as a steppingstone to getting stronger.  The Bible has familiar words on that topic:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

I’ve written in this space about former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s famous motto, “GOOD,” which was his response to any complication that the team would bring up.  “Boss, there’s a hole in the inflatable raft!” “GOOD!” he would respond, stressing at every problematic juncture  that this was merely one more occasion for learning something new, honing one’s problem-solving skills, and overcoming difficulties.

Still, there is to me something different about the Harbaugh family’s motto that incorporates the sense of using adversity as a teaching moment while also moving beyond that to add an extra layer of positivity and gratitude.  The guiding phrase “Who’s got it better than us?” can be used in both upbeat and downbeat scenarios, when times are going great AND when circumstances are pushing us to our breaking point.  It begins with a foundation of gratitude, an invocation of blessings received and acknowledged, not merely taken for granted.  This is a valuable discipline for all ministry teams and all individuals working diligently to fulfill their calling; it’s a discipline captured in the Scriptures in passages such as Psalm 138:

I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
before the “gods” I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your unfailing love and your faithfulness . . .

When I called, you answered me;
you greatly emboldened me.

Really, it’s surprising how few ministry teams take time out to celebrate the blessings of tasks well done (the positive blessings even in the middle of more complex and cloudy undertakings).

So, “Who’s got it better than us?” works on that level.

But it also works in a different way, as evidenced by the story told by Coach Harbaugh about the time when the car was unavailable.  It works wonderfully as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the spirit of “adversity is opportunity” at work.  Given the “blessing” of having to proceed by foot-power to a destination, one not only has a chance to enjoy the weather and the company, a person also has a perfect opportunity to perfect the skill of dribbling.  Integrating opportunities to grow into each moment of our lives, especially the ones in which we are tempted to feel sorry for ourselves, is the attitude that differentiates those who are wildly successful with the resources they’ve been given.

I think what truly sets apart “Who’s got it better than us?” is the inherent, good-natured humor and humility of it.  These are underlying attitudes needed by ministry – which can take itself soooo seriously.  The “WGIBTU” motto doesn’t position the family / the team to be any better than anyone else, just “as blessed as any and all.”  It implies that hard work and attitude make the difference in leveraging those blessings.

In reading an article at Forbes on the principle of strength through adversity (“11 Ways to Turn Adversity Into Opportunity”), I was gratified to have my interpretation confirmed when I got to their fourth highlighted secret for converting lemons to lemonade:

  1. Embrace it.
  2. Practice self-compasson.
  3. Master your emotions.
  5. Engage in wellness activities.
  6. Purge the clutter.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Develop a growth mindset.
  9. Cling to your purpose.
  10. Maintain confidence in your capabilities.
  11. Reflect and move on.

These are all useful ideas.

And they are all fully brought to life by the wonderful, practical, inspirational phrase, “Who’s got it better than us?”

Does your team forge ahead through great times and troubling times with an attitude of “WGIBTU”?  Do you have a regular discipline of expressing gratitude as a team?  Do you have a positive approach to seeking opportunities to grow when adversity rears its head?  Do you do it all with a sense of humble humor guiding your attitude?

A coda to this week’s blog: Even as I was writing this entry, I find myself dealing with an illustration of it.  I had intended January to be a reboot of my running goals, when I found myself knocked off course by an issue with my knee.  No running for me for the moment, but I have also talked many times about the virtue of diversifying our exercise routines – not being beholden to one activity – so now I get to put that theory to work!  I have a perfectly good bike, after all.  “Who’s got it better than us?” where fitness options are concerned.  Maybe this is my moment to take up yoga.  I’ll keep you posted.