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Achieving greatness

10/13/20

I just finished watching the Michael Jordan documentary series, "The Last Dance". Growing up a huge basketball fan, I definitely heard Jordan stories, but this series gave an incredible behind-the-scenes glimpse into many of the moments that comprise the legend of Michael Jordan.

MJ's greatness is undeniable. Jordan revolutionized the game of basketball, became a world-wide cultural icon, and is statistically the best player ever (according to efficiency metrics and advanced analytics).

The documentary got me thinking, what really made Jordan so great?

The entire series shared a theme: Jordan's incredible mental fortitude. The series revealed a person who seemingly had the ability to will himself and those around him to achieve anything he set out to.

This mental strength became most apparent when Jordan was facing adversity. Whether it was practicing all summer after being cut from the high school varsity team, out-working everyone to turn himself into a 'respectable' professional baseball player, or having one of the best Finals games ever while sick with "the flu", Jordan was always at his best in the biggest moments (feel free to ask LeBron how difficult that is to do).

In the absence of real adversity, MJ was infamous for fabricating personal conflicts with opposing players, coaches, and media to use as personal motivation. Jordan knew that challenges and adversity brought out his greatness.

Unfortunately, no matter how much I studied Jordan's mentality, his habits, his practice routines, I will never be the best basketball player ever (the likelihood of being the best at anything in the world is near zero and likely a function of randomness). But there is still a lot to learn from people that have achieved incredible feats, even if you can't personally replicate it.

In my eyes, greatness is not a measure of your skill relative to others, but a measure of your mentality - your ability to pursue a goal, to be determined, and to constantly evolve to maximize your potential. Greatness is something you embody, it is part of your identity - it does not require you to be the best in the world at something.

This is where I think we get greatness wrong.

We teach people that greatness is unattainable. We teach people not to even bother trying to be great because the likelihood of success is miniscule. We teach people to use 'best-practices', to do what has been done before, to follow the rules - catering to the median, minimizing the opportunity for failure, but greatly capping potential.

In heeding this advice, we correctly understand that not everyone can be the best in the world at something, but we are denying the potential of everyone to be great. With intention, determination, and evolution, we can be great partners, family members, employees, philanthropists, sourdough bakers, crossword solvers, cyclists, pickle-ballers - we can be great at whatever we want to be great at.

Greatness is possible, but it is really hard, and we tend to avoid hard things. The opposite of greatness is not failure, but stasis, and as Jeff Bezos says, stasis is death. Stasis, by definition, is our natural state, and we are even less likely to overcome this tendency if it is baked into our teachings.

We need to study greatness, to teach the behaviors and practices that can lead to greatness, to make people believe they can be great.

Greatness is contagious, greatness is learned, and greatness is achievable.

Afterword: A counterpoint raised by Sam Hinkie's during his appearance on the "Invest Like the Best" podcast: "I mean, you mentioned The Last Dance. In some ways this paragon of excellence and amazing. In other ways, it's like the cost of making that happen is real, real. If that's what you admire the most and if that ring chasing is the most important, which is totally admirable in its own way, then fine, I should anticipate you're likely to cut many, many corners, then fight guerrilla warfare in many ways that others would find untoward, and I need to be comfortable with that." At what cost is greatness worth it?