Two months ago, I re-watched Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls “Last Dance” documentary, because I thought it was that good of a documentary and I wanted to see what I might have missed from watching it the first time. My wife re-watched it over the holiday season as well and we were able to discuss what new things we noticed from watching it a second time. She shared with me that she used to go to the games with her stepfather and siblings around Christmas time and that it was always special to her to be in the arena and see one of the greatest to ever play the game perform. I shared that around the time of the first championship, we had moved to Bremerhaven, Germany and I didn’t see any of the games or first three championship parades. My Uncle Kenny, who lived in Baltimore, would record the games on a VHS tape, and send them to us in Germany. We’d watch as if it was live and didn’t know what had happened, but we kept up with the team through news stories and an early version of Sportscenter that used to air on a news show called Headline News (HLN Channel). I didn’t witness my first championship until the year MJ returned to the NBA in 1995.
There was one thing that stood out to both of us in the series and that was Michael Jordan’s winning mentality and competitiveness. Those exploits were well documented in Episodes 7 and 8 of “The Last Dance” documentaries. Jordan’s ability to push teammates to a higher level through means that might get him in trouble with the law and or social media was well chronicled throughout his career. But, the honesty with which Jordan and many former teammates described his tactics was one of the most interesting takeaways from those episodes.
“Winning has a price… And leadership has a price… So, I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And, I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less.” -Michael Jordan
Jordan’s words were prescient as the documentaries delved into how hard the six-time NBA champion was on young teammate Scott Burrell during Jordan’s final season with the Bulls in 1997–98. Burrell, who wasn’t a storied prospect or a top 3 pick out of college like Michael Jordan, became the center of Jordan’s attention throughout the final 2 or 3 episodes and it was pretty evident that Jordan thought that the same tactics he could use to motivate and drive players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant would work with players like Scott Burrell.
You see, Jordan could be fueled by a fear of losing or not meeting expectations because he had the talent to do something about it. Most of us do not have ‘that’ type of talent, nor ‘that’ sort of drive, to be able to do something about it. That’s not a knock or a slight, that’s just the truth. That is, being fueled by the fear of losing would make most of us miserable and more likely to quit than to push us into greater levels. The fear of losing more often comes from a place of insecurity and/or fear versus a place of passion or curiosity. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it’s meant as a survival mechanism and often pushes us to flee — not fight. Ironically, most of us will interpret fear as a threat and not as an insecurity. Why? Well, its dependent on the demands of the task versus our capacity to handle it. If we don’t have the capacity to handle what’s being asked of us, then we default to ‘fight or flight’. In Michael Jordan’s case, he exhibited an immensely high capacity to handle change. Jordan was able to take change and pressure and turn it into hatred that fueled him to greater levels. Most of us do not have that ability, nor should we strive for it. A better approach for most of us is to have a love for the process of change and adapting to the change with grace and passion. Pursuing excellence versus demanding excellence of ourselves.
Now, there’s lots of nuance to this, but to look at Jordan as the benchmark and not the anomaly he was is quite flawed for most of us. When I look at the NBA today and you see all of these players coming out of the G league or some of overseas leagues, I see players who love the game and the process of getting better; not so much the desire to win at all costs. This is wise approach because it prevents burnout happening to quickly and give those players more of a chance to make it versus an all or nothing mentality. The way I thought about it is that every time I use fear to get me going, I’m slowly shifting my deep motivations from the goal I’m pursing. If I allow that to happen too long, I wake up hating the thing that I am pursing. For example, last winter, I took on this winter run training program in preparation of running a marathon this past Fall. There was a run program setup with workouts, interval running, and long runs of the sort. There was a planned cadence of runs and there was group pages setup to record your runs and measure where you were at. However, I never felt like I was in the process, but always in this grind to meet expectations and compete against others. I ended up straining my calf pretty badly as well as developing some gnarly shin splints. I was also mentally tapped out of the program and each run became a bit of a dread. I ended up having to tap out after 3 months due to the physical ailments in mid-April and I opted to miss out on marathon season. The good thing was that I never lost my deep motivation, but I’m sure if I would have pushed myself through all of that, I would have stopped running all together and that wouldn’t have been good for me or those following my running journey.
We often copy the tactics and the expectations of those absurdly gifted individuals of this world, because ‘the hare is a more appealing story than the tortoise’. Not fully understanding that their genius gives them more leeway to take risks and chances. Kanye West is another example of genius personified. While many artists can produce and rap like Kanye, very few can do it at his level and have the breadth of artistic pedigree that he has. Kanye has done gospel, rock, soul, and even orchestral productions. He’s designed clothes, shoes, and even video games. His genius is unbound! And, yet, many of us will never achieve the level of freedom and success he has garnered throughout his career, because many of us just aren’t that talented — and, that’s ok. The takeaway for many of us shouldn’t be to achieve those same expectations, but to find the good in their journey and leave the things that aren’t necessary or applicable behind. Their work allows for us to see a quicker avenue to something that at one time was seen as impossible.
Thanks for reading! — Brace