730 Hours, mastery

Failure into Fuel: Michael Jordan’s Method to Unlimited Motivation

April 30, 2017

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team. 

Through nothing but hard work and determination, Michael Jordan overcomes the odds to become the greatest basketball player of all time — the ultimate underdog story. Everybody loves a good underdog story except for one thing — the story is lie.

Don’t get it wrong. It is still a story worth telling, albeit for a completely different reason and to understand you’ll have to go back in time to May 12th, 1997.

A Phoenix Rises From the Ashes

May 12th, 1997, all eyes were on Kobe Bryant and most of them hostile. It was the Western Conference Finals and the LA Lakers were far from home. The crowd had jeered and taunted the 18-year-old all night, his every mistake broadcasted for all to see. They sat on the edge their seats cheering on the gladiators as they did battle eager for blood to be spilled. 

With 7 seconds left in the game, Kobe Bryant had the ball 27 ft. from the basket and rose to tie the game. An entire seasons worth of blood, sweat, and tears came down to this one shot. Each of the players had dreamed of moments like this; when they were just kids shooting hoops at their neighborhood park counting down the seconds as time collapses upon dreams realized. 

A funny thing happens when you gamble with dreams. Time slows as the dice hits the table. And as the players on court froze, and the sold-out arena went silent, emotions laid in purgatory as the ball threaded the line between utter devastation and pure ecstasy. 

The deafening cheers snapped everything back into reality. The ball fell out of bounds missing the basket entirely — effectively ending the game.

Devastation, but the story doesn’t end here.

It was a rough summer for Kobe. He had performed one the worst choke jobs ever and the media was quick to lambaste the 18-year-old for his contributions to the fall of gold and purple. 4 airballs in 5 minutes. People were hungry for a sacrifice and Kobe became their sheep.

It was a combination of public scrutiny and self-doubt, a lethal cocktail to drink after such a poor performance. Some never recover. Kobe dealt with it the only way he know how — more practice.

That night, after a dismal plane ride back to Los Angeles, he located a high school gym, found a way in, and shot a basketball until the sun came up. He did this everyday that summer.

Uncovering The Lie

19 years earlier, Michael Jordan was dealing with his own set of problems. His name had been left off of the roster — the varsity roster. He had been placed on the jayvee team as was customary for sophomores at the time, but what had bothered him most was the fifteenth name on the varsity roster — Leroy Smith, a sophomore who stood 6’7″ — the only sophomore on that list.

Due to the lack of height on the varsity team, the coach made an exception for Leroy. It was the logical choice. This would give the budding Michael Jordan more playing time and a chance to learn how to lead a team while fixing the glaring hole on the varsity team.

But greatness often isn’t logical and seeing Leroy’s name on that list crushed Michael. He recalled going home to his room to cry alone. This memory would be engraved in the walls of his mental sanctuary for years to come. A gift and a curse.

“Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” Jordan would explain. “That usually got me going again.”

It ignited something in Michael, something that would propel him into the stratospheres of super-stardom and earn him the reputation as the one man you never talk trash to.

Over the next three decades Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly. — Thomas Lake

Law of Thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics states:

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or changed from one form to another.

Two different stories, one outcome. Tasked with an incredible burden, these men judo-flipped the forces pushing against them to reach a higher plane of focus and motivation.

As humans in a busy world, we are tasked with an incredible burden everyday — to produce great work amidst great stress. It can be a pressure to perform, a ticking deadline, or battles we wage internally. These stresses consume us and incapacitate our ability to produce.

A waste. These stresses can be our greatest weapons if utilized properly. There are countless stories of players trash-talking Michael Jordan only to awaken the sleeping giant and countless stories of late game heroics by Kobe Bryant.

It is obvious how much their past failures affected them and who they wanted to become. And it is also obvious that it isn’t the situation that serves as the catalyst but how you react to the situation.

The beauty of Michael Jordan’s story is how exceptionally ordinary it is. It is a common occurrence yet he took that lemon and squeezed it for over 30 years becoming the greatest basketball player of all time in the process.

It doesn’t take a devastating blow to activate the wheel of unlimited motivation, just the right attitude. Below are three things to keep in mind.

Setting High Standards

Both men had a bed of excuses to lie on: Kobe was only 18, Jordan was only a sophomore, it was Kobe’s rookie year, Leroy was 6’7″. Their egos could have rested comfortably on the myriad of reasons and perspectives that justified their shortcomings. But like many great men before them, Kobe and Michael steered clear of the siren’s call.

The consequences were too dire. It could have meant an untimely death for the fire that burned within them. It could have driven them to apathy.

As a sideline reporter, I can only speculate what the men felt after falling short of what they coveted most — humiliation, anger, shame, guilt. At that moment in time, with their expectations shattered to pieces, they could have even hated the game they loved so much.

But hate is good, pain is good. It means the blood that pumps through your arteries still flows. It means whatever fire that burns within you rages on, perhaps more intense than ever.

By setting high standards for yourself you avoid the pitfall of apathy. You give yourself a dream worthy of your efforts. But it is a double-edged sword. Having high standards means coming up short often and on occasion not even coming close at all. Some people are crushed by this reality — either they are so accustomed to achievement that they break at their first failure or they have existed entirely in their comfort zone unable to cope with the growing pains. The next step is crucial for you to combat both of these situations. 

See the Cup as Neither Half-Full Nor Half-Empty

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

Like the goblet in the parable above, it is inevitable that we too should shatter. There will be times where you fail — not once, not twice — but over and over again. You must accept this because the punches that knock you out are always the ones you do not see coming.

At our primitive core, all humans have a innate desire to avoid pain and we will go to great lengths to avoid pain. Eventually we will have avoided pain for so long we begin to believe in our infallibility. That’s when the forces of life pummels us into submission, ironically enough.

But as humans, over the course of millions of years, we have developed a rational being inside us all — a deliberate mind that can rise above our impulses. Seeing the cup as already broken appeals to this rational being. It changes the question from ‘how to avoid pain’ to ‘how to make lemonade.’

See the cup not as half-empty, not as half-full, but as already broken and you learn how to deal with the pain, not how to avoid it.

Divert Blame Onto Things You Can Control

People who have true grit never see failure as a fundamental part of themselves. They refuse to. Instead they funnel that energy into the variables they can control, oftentimes more work and practice. This wouldn’t be too different from diverting a river towards a dam just before the storm hits.

Then, when the storm hits, instead of complete and utter destruction, the torrent of water is used to generate energy.

Calling upon this energy does not require you to have recently failed, however. Like Jordan, all it takes is a simple reminder of the pain failure brings. Next time you want to slack off close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to fail, what was it like when you have failed, and then ask yourself this:

Do you still want to slack off?

If your standards are high enough, this will be a source of never-ending energy.

Whatever Doesn’t Kill You

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. — Michael Jordan

Fact is, when you think you think you’re good enough, failure shocks you into reality. It keeps you grounded. It tells you you’re not good enough. You have to be more skillful, you have to work harder.

It is a cliche but it is only so because it is true — whatever does’t kill you makes you stronger. By utilizing this method of motivation, you begin to find you can find anything to increase your motivation — anything. Any unbalance in your life can be used to help motivate you to greatness: anger, sadness, frustration. When all there was was apathy, these distractions can arise the motivation and focus you need to get shit done.

This is why some people thrive under pressure and some people crack. This is why some people seem to have a switch they turn on when the moments become tight. There is no clutch gene. The same way an alarm clock shocks you into wakefulness every morning, these people have turned what would otherwise be emotional distractions into a trigger to perform.

Every time an opponent decided to trash-talk Michael Jordan, they were unknowingly reminding Jordan of the slight that shocked him all those years ago. Every time Kobe found his team depending on him to perform, he was transported back to the empty high school gym where he spent his summer shooting baskets day and night.

Through confronting their failures, living with them, sleeping with them, these men were able to replace the pain, the anger, and the frustration these memories (and subsequent memories) inflicted into a higher plane of focus, motivation, and grit. And that is why they succeed.

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