The 2018 Senior Perspectives is the 13th in a series of annual collections. Senior captains and representatives of teams at Harvard have been invited to contribute viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard.
Josef Johnson, Wrestling
Hometown: Piscataway, N.J.
Concentration: Social Studies
House Affiliation: Adams
For the rest of my life, I will be indebted to the sport of wrestling and Coach Weiss for giving me the opportunity to enter the Harvard wrestling family. Anyone who subjects themselves to the unparalleled physical and mental brutality of division one wrestling can speak of the growth to which the sport contributes, but the Harvard wrestling family benefited me in ways I believe few programs could have done. Often, the idea of a group, especially a team, acting as a family gets used haphazardly, but the experience that I’ve had as a Harvard wrestler can only be compared to the type of love that I’ve experienced in my household between my parents, siblings, and I.
Like my family, my team has been my biggest support system these past four years. No one has been more resolute in their belief in me than the guys who have gone into battle with me- not just on the wrestling mat, but also on the stadium in preseason and in the most challenging moments of job recruiting, when I doubted whether I was worthy of the career that I had planned on. At every instance of self-doubt, I could rely on an army of motivators who saw me for the man that I could be, and not just the person who was struggling in the moment.
Beyond encouragement, membership on the Harvard wrestling team impressed upon me a new understanding of duty and accountability. Just as with family, the Harvard wrestling team has a built-in sense of responsibility that goes far beyond any self-serving ends. There’s an implicit understanding that if something needs to be done, you are the first person to look towards for a solution. From the day I stepped on campus, my coaches and captains were clear that no one was exempt from leadership. In my first year, I wasn’t allowed to take it easy on myself and excuse underperformance for a lack of experience. Not only that, but I was expected to hold older guys- people who I admired- accountable. One of the things I am most proud of is the sense of ownership that my class had throughout our time on the team. At the end of our first season, we met and decided that it was our team and any progress that it would see would need to be driven by us, and we never looked back. At every shortcoming, we asked ourselves what more we could personally do to bring out the best in the team. This theme of stepping up and taking ownership has largely defined the Harvard wrestling experience.
As a captain, my view on leadership went through an incredible transformation. Instead of solely focusing on myself and occasionally barking orders, I quickly learned that leadership was about immersing yourself in the journey that 25 other men have embarked on. In that role and in pursing leadership beforehand, I learned to lose my sense of self in pursuit of a mission much larger than what I was personally doing. What I appreciated about my fellow captains and our incredible coaches was their commitment to building other leaders who could further the mission, and I sought to emulate this in my own leadership. Furthermore, pursuing my personal goals and overcoming my own gaps in belief became much easier as I was then fighting to become Harvard’s next All-American and not just an All-American. When my goals seemed insurmountable, I would constantly ask myself, “if not you, then who” will deliver this team the success that it deserves. In the matches with the most pressure to deliver for the team, I am very proud to say that I was able to rise and outperform my expectations.
Although I did not accomplish my primary concrete goal, I truly have cherished the experience of failure in this sport. Due to the dual individualistic and team aspects of wrestling, loss can be deeply personal, and therefore, deeply emotional. Stepping on a wrestling mat with only yourself to blame or laud in loss or victory incurs a sense of naked accountability that can be crushing or liberating. For every wrestler, there’s a naturally insatiable desire for achievement that can never be realized, and for the mentally weak this is indeed a crushing reality. Fortunately, in the Harvard wrestling family- a group that has seen me cry more than anyone else- overcoming these shortfalls has allowed us to build deeper bonds than I could find anywhere on campus or in life. What’s more, failure has taught me how to hold myself accountable and how to rise from the ashes of defeat as a fiercer warrior than before. Above all else, Harvard Wrestling has shown the importance of perpetual growth, and I am very proud of the man that this program has enabled me to grow into.