I am the greatest, and I said that even before I knew I was.
Muhammad Ali
About 14 years ago I met Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxing champions who ever lived. I had boarded an American Airlines flight and was getting settled into my seat. I looked up and there he was, the great Ali, talking with a woman who was (I think) one of his daughters. She was standing to talk to him; she was lovely and appeared to be all business. After a few minutes she walked away and Ali was left by himself in first class. It’s now or never, I thought.

I left my seat and approached him, only a little bit worried that a bodyguard might dive out and tackle me. Thankfully, none did. “Hello Mr. Ali,” I said. He looked up and smiled. “May I have your autograph, sir?” At that Ali gestured to the empty seat next to him, and I sat down. Sitting next to the great Muhammad Ali was surreal and exhilarating. The symptoms of Ali’s Parkinson’s disease were evident as he spoke in almost a whisper to ask my name. “Laura,” I replied, almost as quietly.

I have no idea what else I said to him. I was trying to take it all in. Looking at Ali, his eyes sparkling as he looked back at me, I realized that this was a special moment, a brush with greatness. There is no mistaking when you are in the presence of a legend. You can feel it. The energy is intense. There is a special luminescence around great people.

How is greatness achieved? Ali had an interesting approach to his career and his life. He constantly affirmed his greatness even before achieving his many successes. He famously said, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was,” and also, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” These quotes illustrate Ali’s belief in the power of words. He used them to fuel his journey to extraordinary success.

Many great teachers believe that the words you think and say out loud can have a big impact upon your life. I am sure even champions have their days of self-doubt. Ali admits that he used words to boost his confidence and promote his successes before he “knew” them to be true. But he also attributes his achievements to his strong will. “Champions aren’t made in gyms,” he said. “Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

I believe that if you approach your life with the positive attitude and heart of a champion, you, too, can create a living legacy of greatness. It takes effort to step into that headspace. Ask yourself: do I have the heart of a champion? Do I have the will to make a change for the better in my life? To become great? I bet you do.