Does Giving Everything to One Thing Lose You Something?
Updated: Feb 24
I think I was the only adult American who didn’t know who Michael Jordan is when the documentary, Last Dance came out. I had heard the name, but I could not have told you that he played basketball – and I certainly couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd (or, for that matter, a basketball team). I now know that’s what he played because I saw a few episodes of said show. I have no interest in sports. (I can’t get past the pointlessness of it all even as I appreciate something of its psychological basis). So Last Dance was literally my first dance with a sports documentary.
Seeing men of great talent produce great results with that talent has a tendency to make me emotional. I go into myself; one might say witnessing greatness “makes me go existential”. Watching Jordan in that documentary did that for me. The same thing once happened a few years ago when I realized, hours into the Harry Potter movies, that the guy playing Prof. Snape – Alan Rickman - was the same guy whose in-many-ways opposite character in Love Actually had struck me as extremely powerful for completely different reasons.
By “go existential”, I think I mean the following.
When I’m on my death bed, there are only two thoughts that will matter and that I want to have.
The first is “I had one hell of a great time”.
The other is “My existence is justified by the impact I've made on the world.”
I’m definitely going to have the first. But what makes me antsy is that I’ve not yet done what it takes to have the second.
Is Michael Jordan Human?
Jordan, Rickman, and others whose names we know, had or will have the second.
The one bit of Last Dance that enabled me to relate to MJ – the only thing I saw in hours that made sense to me, that enabled me to be reasonably confident that I “got” what it felt like to be Jordan if only for a glancing moment, was when he disappeared into an empty locker room and fell to the floor, covering his face with his basketball. This was immediately after coming off the court on which he had just won the 1996 championship on Father’s Day – his first championship win since the death of his father, with whom he had always been so close and who had been pivotal in MJ’s success.
In that moment, we see his humanness – and I know what it feels like to be a human. Specifically, I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by an emotion fueled by a thought of something that matters as much as anything matters to you.
What I don’t know – and this is why I could relate to MJ so little throughout the show - is how it feels to suppress such emotions so hard for so long and so effectively that one can be so completely consumed by the pursuit of a single goal.
Until the moment I saw Jordan fall to the floor with only his basketball and his emotion, I didn’t know if Jordan and I were made of the same stuff.
In that moment, I discovered we were – albeit in very different proportions.
The question that remains for me is how can someone work that hard on one thing so consistently. He was so hungry for it. They call him the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen because of that singular focus and the results that it has produced.
In contrast, the one thing I was sure about as I groped toward a path for my own life was that whatever I did, I would hate to do it all the time.
I don’t envy Jordan his life or money… but I’d take some of his drive.
But does his total drive have a price?
Do you lose something if you give your everything to one thing?
Success At What Price?
Jordan reminded me of my own late uncle, Felix Dennis – one of Britain’s richest men and most celebrated entrepreneurs of his time. (He founded and published major magazines like Maxim, Computer Shopper, MacUser etc.) In his book “How to Get Rich” (a great read by the way), he spends the first chapter explaining all the reasons why not to try – and laying out the large price you pay for the attempt. It is a price paid in terms of relationships and positive aspects of one’s character that don’t favor the “getting of money” as he calls it.
But is it really that much of a price?
I mean, what part of me would I lose if I had Jordan’s singular focus - and more importantly, would it matter?
Related to that question, possibly, is this one: why did MJ cry when he was asked by the interviewer if the price of his approach to the sport, competition, and his teammates, was their belief that he is a nice guy?
Why Grown Men (and the Rest of Us) Cry
Did that question make him cry because he was grieving for something he wished he had or wished he still had? I have no idea because I’ve never met the man… but my bias is to believe that the answer to that is “no”.
I’m more inclined to believe that he cried (and even stopped the interview) not because that question - the trade-off that it asked about - was one he regretted: but rather because it brought him face to face with one of the most important things about himself with unexpected clarity.
His tears were the result of the breakthrough emotional power of attending to, or remembering, a truth that truly defines you. (The most defining moment of my whole life was also caused by a single sentence that did just that. And like the question that was asked of Jordan, the statement wasn’t designed to have that effect but it did so because it put to me a fundamental truth about myself that I’d not until that moment grasped.)
One of the reasons I’m going for that interpretation of Jordan’s tears is that I feel that his level of success not only excuses the trade-off suggested by the interviewer (nice guy vs. success at all costs): it utterly justifies it. One thing that you can’t argue with is results. And a person you probably shouldn’t argue with is one who gets the very results he’d told everyone he was working toward.
Feeling as I do about all of that makes me more inclined to antsiness at my own recurrent laziness and at my recollection of all the times I’ve given myself excuses or made a choice to just stop doing whatever success requires for an hour or day or two.
Why do I keep making that choice? Why does anyone?
Why can’t I “manufacture” MJ’s motivation – day in, day out?
A little while after watching the show came to me a small but interesting part of the answer.
The one time in my life I’ve worked consistently with a motivation even comparable to MJ’s (and with comparable results in the sense that I repeatedly did as well as it was possible to do) was when I was at Cambridge, studying for my physics degree.
I look back now and wonder how I ever did it. I remember in the Easter vacation before exam term spending every day memorizing, practicing physics problems, doing every past question I could lay my hands on. I’d have a stopwatch to keep track of how many hours I did each day. I stopped it for every trip to the restroom; or for a couple of minutes' looking out of the window. I didn’t let myself get away with anything. Singular focus. Eyes on the prize.
(Strictly speaking, in my case, the prize wasn’t getting the best grade: it was avoiding getting anything other than the best grade. I was an insecure overachiever back then. Perhaps MJ could relate to that too?)
There’s one obvious difference between me now and me then and one clear similarity between me then and MJ throughout his career: at Cambridge, the definition of success was clear (get a first class degree); it was unequivocal, and I personally had no way of changing it. In other words, there was nothing I could do to get that first class degree except work more and harder.
That’s exactly how it is for any professional player of any sport. The metric of success is absolutely fixed (and therefore completely independent of your choices) and the only variable you can completely control to outperform is your own effort.
One of the huge reasons that I don’t now work like I did at Cambridge is because there isn’t one clear measure of success for what I do now - and I can’t pretend there is because I can’t lie to myself.
Yet, watching a man do what he had to do to get both of those feelings on his death bed that I want to have on mine (“I had a great time” and “I changed the world”) does motivate me to work much harder for a while. (I think I even have to give MJ some credit for my first ever blog.)
Even though I can’t manufacture a singular success metric like “win the NBA championship” or “get a First from Cambridge”, I could choose to do more more often, and less less often.
So if I have something to thank MJ for – and the aforementioned Alan Rickman and uncle Felix – it’s for providing examples that I can attend to every now and then to remember that I do at least have the same choice they do and can make it for a while - even if not all the time or for ever. Those reminders send my imagination to my deathbed, where the antsiness comes from, and so I find myself choosing differently for a short period.
During that period, things feel more like they felt at Cambridge. There, I defined failure as doing less than the best possible. At Cambridge, that meant not getting a first; at life, it means not having both of the thoughts that matter on the final bed that I'll ever lie on.