Image Source: The Last Dance
Michael Jordan is synonymous with greatness. I don’t need to give any background because everyone knows who he is. And The Last Dance only reinforced and detailed his achievements. He is the benchmark of hard work, discipline, and talent in a single entity. Everyone always wanted, and will always want, to be like Mike.
We live in a world of abundance viewed as scarcity and of opportunity seen as competition. The narrative is that there are winners and losers, and you have to do whatever possible to be better than the people around you. Your job, your home, your life – the standard measurements of “success” all come from comparing to those around you. The promotion a schoolmate recently posted on LinkedIn, the new car in your neighbor’s driveway, and the new loaf of banana bread a stranger on Instagram posted – all of it external indicators of how we measure up.
Whenever speaking about goals, challenges, next steps – anything related to moving the momentum of your life in the direction you want – with my closest and most ambitious friends, the conversation is almost always reduced to comparisons. A waterfall of the word “than” washes over the discussion. What people you are doing better than. What businesses our corporate teams need to be better than. The changes to our life will allow us to separate ourselves to move further ahead than the army of ghosts that seem to always haunt and challenge our goals. Funny enough, in a more heated exchange, I told one of my closest friends I thought he was approaching something callously and things rarely needed to be handled so aggressively. And he referenced Kobe and Jordan, and said that sometimes you have to be the bad guy to get things done and to beat your competition.
“Your only competition is who you could be.”
To sit here and argue that external motivations and benchmarks don’t matter or shouldn’t exist would be waste of your time and mine. They do exist. They are ubiquitous. Most people use external reference points as motivation and guides on how to create their own path forward. I do the same exact thing. It’s easy to describe your fitness goals. It’s easier to find a trainer and program you can see and compare yourself to, and then help you to measure progression.
I think we get lost in the external motivators though. We conflate comparison and envy with accomplishment. We confuse competition with purpose. Competition is always changing and fleeting. The goalposts move just when you get oriented. You are building the mechanisms that guide your life based on your observations of other people, making them inherently unreliable. You’re not taking time to understand yourself. Your goals. To calibrate yourself and what you want to achieve, and then use that foundation to move forward and choose your benchmarks and motivators. Further, what do you do when you run out of external motivators? What do you do when you wake up and realize what you’ve been working for is what you thought you were supposed to have and never what you truly wanted? Where does the fuel for the engine come from then? Our greatest competition is to improve upon ourselves each day. To win the internal battles that are always raging, to conquer our own demons to propel ourselves forward. By re-focusing our guiding principle to the be the best version of our self, our primary motivation goes from beating someone else to elevating ourselves. It creates a more Stoic approach that can keep us grounded and present in the world around us. Knowing our only competition is ourselves allows for focus that gives us an unending supply of energy, and previously unreachable clarity in how to architect our motivations and actions.
“His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present, and that was the separator.”
The stories of Michael Jordan’s legendary responses to real or perceived slights speak for themselves. The focus on winning and dominating the competition, the drive to win as many championships as possible, and to be the greatest player in the world – all of these things are indicators of a wildly externally motivated man. But Jordan’s presence…his superhuman focus on his goals – his unmatched attribute that made him the greatest player to play the game and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time – is the sign of a viciously internally motivated man. A man that if he was alone on a court and told himself he isn’t leaving until he hits 50 in a row – he’s not leaving that court until it’s accomplished. A man that when coming back to the league after his MLB stint and was living in the shadow he himself cast by his earlier dominance, stated that a primary motivator for him reclaiming physical dominance was to ensure he was giving his best for the fans to see.
Michael Jordan is the triumph of a man with unlimited internal drive. Who’s primary and greatest competitor was himself. After all – if he is the greatest in the world and wants to continue to dominate, his primary challenge would be beating the benchmark he would have had to set. He had no shortage of Titans to face in his career – all of them beaten at one time or another. But the work to be the greatest, the challenges to overcome? That was Michael Jordan playing the game against Michael Jordan. That was him focusing on the present moment to be grounded in is reality, and focus on exactly what he needed to accomplish next to continue to improve. To architect his own life to be the best version of himself and to be always be improving. To always be chasing the competition inside his mind to be a better version of Michael Jordan than the day before. In a league of external motivation and competition, his focus and internal drive to always be the best version of himself is what made an aging Jordan still the dominant force of the game.
While it is a near impossible task to have the focus and determination that Jordan demonstrated in his professional career, the lesson is applicable for all of us. Presence, focus, and internal motivations trump all. When all else is stripped away, the competition to be a better version of yourself will always exist. And understanding who you are (or want to be) first as a mechanism to guide you through the universe of external benchmarks and motivations will always turn up better results. Because no matter what happens in your life, you will always be stuck with yourself. And all that matters is being the best version of yourself possible in the moment. The past is over. The future is a mystery. All that exists is the present and your struggle within it.
See you tomorrow.
Inspirations: The Last Dance, Competition, Farnam Street
Quotes: Shane Parrish, Mark Vancil