The television event of the spring for millions of viewers was The Last Dance, the ten-part series that served as a chronicle of the peculiar drive and pathos of Michael Jordan as much as a record of the Chicago Bulls teams he led to championships across the 1990s. At first blush, it might seem to be a product entirely for sports fans, given that its subject is athletes and teams and games and all the things that would seemingly be of interest only to those who have a vested interest in such things. But any story, regardless of genre, is ultimately a human story, and the lessons gleaned from a glimpse behind the curtain at a normally guarded Jordan can inform even the non-sports fan in their life and their work.
Some considerable percentage of Earth’s population is aware of Jordan’s athletic and commercial exploits, though that number diminishes as his playing career and consistent public presence recedes further into the past. Fewer are aware of the dark side of what propelled those accomplishments, which are laid bare in the series, either despite or because of Jordan’s attempt to excuse or hand-wave his behaviors: the relentless bullying of teammates and opponents alike and the competitive mania that fostered endless grudges and fueled an unyielding desire to win at everything. Pushing aside the hagiography and the hosannas on offer online, the takeaway is clear: what made Jordan great also made him a difficult person to be around.
Being Michael Jordan is clearly a burden, and it’s one that we’re fortunate enough to never bear. There is, however, something in seeing that drive and ambition and competitiveness, even in that extreme form, that should give some entrepreneurs pause to think about their own approach to work.
It’s easy to point to a more aberrant form of your own behavior in an effort to minimize your own flaws, but that doesn’t or shouldn’t excuse those shortcomings. We’ve all been guilty of perhaps being too focused on a goal at the expense of everything else in our life, including the people closest to us. We’ve all been a little too controlling or perhaps inclined towards micromanaging in situations that might not have warranted it, all out of an earnest desire to ensure everything’s right. It’s our prerogative to do so as founders and managers if we so choose, but making that automatic by giving over to those impulses might end up doing more harm to our psyche than it helps out business.
No one starts their own company unless there’s an innate need for some level of control and power, and those needs aren’t definitionally unseemly or untoward. We all require some level of control in our lives, and most would gladly accept the power over their fate that founders set out to create for themselves. But both require moderation and purpose; the need to control every aspect of everything in your life and your work is not only a recipe for considerable stress and anxiety, it’s a goal outside of your reach. If even the great Michael Jordan can’t bend the world entirely to his will (though he came closer than most would), what chance do the rest of us have?
We have to learn to let go, at least a little, of our need to exert control over every part of our lives, to have every interaction or transaction go in our favor. We should work towards that end, to be sure, but we should also be able to accept when things don’t fall our way because that’s simply the nature of life. For everything that we can influence and put our fingerprints on, there are exponentially more entirely outside of our sight, let alone our control, that influences what happens with our business. Understanding that and letting go can bring us far more peace than a futile effort to master the world around us.
It’s hard to say that any documentary about events twenty-plus years past generates concern, but to the extent that Last Dance gives pause moving forward, it would be in considering how that particular Jordan mindset might be taken onboard by previously unaware viewers as a path towards greatness. Why can’t you be the Michael Jordan of your field, and why shouldn’t you be? We’re told early on that hard work and desire win out (think 10,000 hours), so it makes a sort of sense that we simply need to ratchet those up to a level that renders our success inevitable. But in thinking about the gain, we fail to consider the cost extracted by placing such pressure on ourselves.
Everyone has to make their own calculations as to what and how much they’re willing to do in order to achieve what they want, and the sacrifices that are required to get there. Hopefully, a story about basketball can help us learn that winning isn’t everything after all. #onwards.