What will people remember you for?

Everyone (except my friend Troy House who avoids basketball like the plague) has probably heard the “greatest basketball player” discussion. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlin, etc. Is it based on pure shooting ability (Kobe?). Is it based on team importance (LeBron?). Is it based on championship rings (Bill Russell?).

You can argue the relative merits of any of those positions. The same thing happens in any competitive field. Who’s the best director in Hollywood? What’s the best burger spot in New York? Who’s the best dentist or car mechanic? People use all sorts of metrics. Cheapest car mechanic, highest grossing director, the director with the most awards, etc.

I find it’s nice to turn to sports, as it often paints a clearer picture. Hence all the wonderful metaphors in the sports world. A team’s winning or losing has to do with many factors, but in the end they either win or lose. In Hollywood, one person’s most hated movie will be another person’s favorite.

Getting back to basketball, however, all the same confusion applies with this discussion. People usually just tend to pick the most public figure who was playing when they were about 10-15 years old. Same way people often pick sports teams for life, someone who is about 22 now might automatically think Kobe Bryant is the best player, more because of timing than sheer ability. If you’re 12 now, in 10 years you will write blog entries about LeBron being the greatest player.

However, I think people often come back to Michael Jordan for a number of reasons – and for more than just being a great player.

Michael Jordan put his imprint on everything he did. He didn’t just win, he did it with style. He looked like he was simultaneously working harder than everyone else, playing with less effort and having way more fun. While other players might beat you, Jordan would make you look bad, but without ever making you look bad. I saw players actually fall down from Jordan’s feinting stutter steps – not because of anything he did, but because they were already scared and anticipating what he was going to do.

People talk about a “mental” game, but they don’t realize that it’s not just in your head, but in everyone else’s head, too.

When it comes down to it, no one had more signature “moves” than Jordan. Kobe has a distinctive fadeaway, and Kareem had a distinctive hook – but everything Jordan did was distinctive. Things that had nothing to do with even playing were distinctive! The way he chewed gum, or stuck his tongue out when driving the lane. What other player put such a stamp on themselves, and on the game?

It’s no surprise that the most distinctive player in basketball history practically branded Nike during the 90’s with just the afterglow of his own personal branding.

Nothing Jordan did was a gimmick, though. He didn’t stick his tongue out to distract you from the fact that he couldn’t drive to the basket. This is a huge distinction, and one that people forget. If you develop a way of doing things because your way is better and reflects your personality – that’s a signature. If you develop a way of doing things that hides the fact that your way isn’t better and only reflects your desired image – that’s a gimmick.

Jordan really did change the game.



Can a television commercial teach you character?

I recently was describing this commercial to a friend on the telephone as one of my all-time favorite commercials. Growing up, I had never been exposed to the concept that failure is an inevitable and important ingredient of success…and I didn’t expect my first exposure to come in the form of a Nike commercial.

However, this is a lesson you can easily miss if you don’t participate in organized sports. In math, nobody expects you to get a certain percentage of the problems wrong. In English, no one expects you to incorrectly define a certain percentage of vocabulary. In academia, no one expects you to do anything wrong.

The problem is that life doesn’t work like math class. In class, you read the chapter, learn the lesson, do the practice tests, and then hopefully get 100% on your test. In basketball, you train for years, do drills until you hurt for days, play thousands of hours – and then you’re amazing if you can shoot 50% from the field.

I’m certainly not saying failure is more acceptable in sports. On the contrary, people usually care more about winning in basketball than they do in math class.  I think it has more to do with preparation and the fear of failure. In sports, you risk failure by even being in the game. Yet in academia, you can study hard and prepare well and never come close to failing in your entire academic career. This is great for your transcript, but terrible for later in life…when you are confronted by risks that might reasonably end in failure. Should you start that new business? Well, it might fail. Again. Yet no one suggests you don’t try to hit the game winning shot because you have a 50% chance of failure and you missed once before.

These experiences explain why many successful people have a background in sports – or in skilled games of chance, which teach many of the same lessons.

So next time you take on a project or a career that has a real chance of failure, or embark on a path that has led you astray before…just remember that success and failure are intertwined and it’s hard to capture one consistently without experiencing your fair share of the other.