December 11, 2017

What does it take to succeed? Despite research on genetic gifts, nurturing environments, ease of path and more, that remains a tough question to answer.

Yet, for Leland Melvin, he credits his success with two primary factors: grit and the support of others. Melvin’s life is a remarkable adventure that has taken him from small town Lynchburg, VA to the National Football League and even into space. Each step along the way included a stumble or quite a big fall that required him to get up over and over again, and most often with the help of others.

I recently heard Melvin speak at the University of Richmond (he is a chemical engineering alum), about his experiences also detailed in his book, Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances. Melvin shares anecdotes from throughout his life that acknowledge the challenges and recovery opportunities he has experienced.

On Grit

Melvin credits much of his success to grit – a willingness to work toward a goal despite setbacks and failures along the way. He says these are lessons he learned early-on, from his parents and even from his school-age friends on the basketball court.

My sister, Cathy, and I learned that we could do anything we wanted if we were willing to work for it.

Failures in life are the building blocks for later success, and anything was possible.

Perhaps the biggest life challenge presented to Melvin, was the sudden and still-present hearing loss due to a malfunctioning helmet during a training dive at NASA. This injury was fully expected to keep Melvin from making it into space. And yet, Melvin, as he explains it, “became the only person ever admitted in two of the most select clubs (NFL and an astronaut) in the country.”

Gratitude for Others

The list of people Melvin feels indebted to is quite long. He recognizes the impact others had on his success and he is vocal about his gratitude for their influence. From his parents, childhood friends and church community, to his football coaches, college professors, and career mentors, and including pioneers in race, sports and space who inspired him, Melvin is candid about the fact that his success has as much to do with them as it does with himself.

Success depends not just on individual skill but the strength and variety of the network supporting that individual.

My success depended on the vision and perseverance of people like Katherine (Johnson).

Melvin also recognizes when someone else’s influence has impacted him negatively – the state trooper in his senior year of high school, the honor council’s accusations in college, the technician who erred with his training helmet – and he acknowledges the lessons he learned and finds a way to appreciate the opportunity to grow.

Leland Melvin’s story is an inspiration and reminder – hard work and determination are important; so are the people who surround you.

Through the grace and wisdom of the good people in my life, I had developed a growth mindset and truly believed anything was possible.

After Melvin’s prepared remarks, he fielded questions, most from children and early teens in the audience. I was struck by how they raced to the microphone to speak with him, in front of an auditorium of adults. It made me think about how humble and accessible Melvin was and that he just might be related to the Pied Piper. The children were not disappointed. He answered their questions with honor and full openness. Melvin ended each response with a statement that conveyed his belief in the child’s own future. He clearly pays it forward – supporting, building confidence, and generating belief-in-self for these children. Each left their turn at the microphone with enthusiasm and a broad smile on his/her face.

Let Melvin’s story remind us to give grace, gratitude, support, and second chances – they have the power to change the course of someone’s life.