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What Michael Jordan Taught Me About Self-Worth

We’ve all heard the truth that success is like an iceberg. Most people easily get swept up when their favorite sports team wins the championship. Gatorade containers are upended over coaches’ heads, trophies are lifted on high, cigars dangle off of lips smiling from ear-to-ear, fat bonuses hit bank accounts. But they don’t see all the trials, failure, and pain that’s hidden beneath the surface. Take the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. They dominated the NBA for years, and Michael Jordan was their leader. The GOAT.

Excerpt from “The Last Dance” – a docuseries about Chicago Bulls great, Michael Jordan, Episode 7 (Netflix, ESPN):

Former Chicago Bulls teammate on Michael Jordan (MJ): “Was he a nice guy? He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he has, he can’t be a nice guy. He would be difficult to be around, and if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball, he is difficult.”

Producer asks Michael Jordan: “Through the years, do you think that intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy?”

MJ: “I don’t know, I mean…winning has a price. And leadership has a price. I tried to pull people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right, because my team mates came after me. And they didn’t endure all the things I endured. Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I play the game [at]. And I wasn’t going to take anything less. Now if that means I had to go in and get in you’re a** a little bit, then I did that. You ask all my teammates…the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f****** do. When people see this, they’re gonna say, ‘He wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well that’s you, because you’ve never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be part of that as well. Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way. Break.”

MJ becomes visibly and audibly emotional towards the end of the clip. You can tell the question evoked a strong emotional response before he walks off camera saying he’s taking a break. You can watch part of the emotional clip here.

I was struck when I first watched this, because it has been over 20 years since he won his last NBA Championship. Michael played for 15 seasons, winning an astounding six championships with the Bulls. He was also a:

6 time NBA Finals MVP

5 time NBA MVP

14 time NBA All-Star

10 time NBA scoring champion

3 time NBA steals leader

NCAA Champion

Olympic Gold Medalist and Dream Team leader

Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner

And yet the wounds from the criticism he received all those years ago are clearly still fresh. There is no one like MJ. But amongst his teammates, the truth is – even though he pushed them to the peaks of their field and even though he is the greatest player of all time, he was not widely beloved.

The burden of leadership is heavy. Everyone loves to win, but it takes incredible courage to be the one to blaze the trail and do something no one else has done.

I’ve worked child sex abuse and human trafficking cases in Asia, Latin America, and North America. When I created and oversaw anti-child exploitation operations in one particular jurisdiction, it started with a meeting of over a dozen law enforcement agencies and an offering made over lukewarm coffee and donuts.

“Your agencies have all expressed a desire to do better in protecting children, but you lack the resources. We are proposing a new collaborative effort. You bring whomever and whatever resources you can muster, and we will set up the framework. Just show up, and we’ll create the opportunities.”

There were dozens of leaders in the room. Everyone tentatively signed on wanting to see how this experiment would work, but really only a handful truly understood the vision and potential of this operation. I know this, because I spent many months negotiating with many of them over what would and wouldn’t work to attain success.

By the time the operations had run their course, we had achieved massive results that no one – not even I – could’ve anticipated. We’d arrested dirty cops, identified human trafficking rings, built bridges across the justice system, identified many live victims, and – through data collection – upended the narrative on what child sex abuse looked like in our area. Our jurisdiction had never seen anything like it.

I also had participants with 1/10th my experience trying to tell me my op was wrong or that it wouldn’t work but offering no solutions. When people wanted to take short cuts that could undermine a case or the op, I was told I was being unreasonable. When I held them accountable for attempting to circumvent policy, ethical codes, or the law, I was the bad guy. Our mission was to protect children from sexual exploitation and hold perpetrators accountable, and this isn't just a game involving a ball. Our success helped survivors on their healing journeys, it ensured our justice system performed with excellence, and it showed the communities we served that we were serious about protecting them. I'm the worst baseball player on the planet, but I was not built to allow any margin for losing when it comes to protecting human life.

And so I resonate with Michael’s frustration.

People want to do cool earth-shattering stuff, but the truth is that most are not willing to do what it takes to execute that vision. And what is even more baffling is – the more successful you are, the more some will dislike you.

In those times, Teddy Roosevelt’s words got me through:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Or as Brené Brown summarizes: “If you’re not in the arena getting your a** kicked like I am, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

But you know what I learned about myself through this process?

A small part of me was still…after all those year of working in professional spaces that protected life and sought justice…hustling for my worth. I recognize that I’m human, and every human wants to be successful and be appreciated. But what I’ve learned from studying MJ and other pioneers is that the hate and judgment from others will always be there whether I'm successful in their eyes or not, and it will always validate my imposter syndrome. And so I am grateful for that hard season for one more reason beyond the success we experienced, because I have finally learned the lesson – my self-worth and my identity only come from one place: myself and the spirit that dwells within me (God/the Creator/the Universe…whatever you choose to call it). No human can shake that.

You have a mission on this earth. A calling. You’ve probably even tried to shake it once or twice, because you are keenly aware it requires a lot. The price it demands to be paid will come at a high personal cost, but somehow you keep finding yourself back there. Michael was born to be a basketball player. He actually retired from the sport to play professional baseball after he reached his own breaking point, but he came back less than two years later and won four more national titles. He couldn’t help but be the best, because that was his mission and calling. And he wasn’t only about winning – he wanted to collaborate and share the success with others.

· People hate New England Patriots head coach Bill Bellichik, but he’s won the most Superbowls ever.

· People hated Steve Jobs, but he changed the world through Apple.

· The NASA “human computers” featured in the movie “Hidden Figures” – Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan – experienced severe discrimination. And they had an enormous responsibility to put the first American, John Glenn, into orbit without failure.

· Abraham Lincoln is one of the most celebrated presidents in history. But many people – even those outside of the South – disliked him at the time of his presidency. So much so, that he was assassinated. The hate doesn’t get more real than that.

The truth is, when you do that big badass thing, people are going to hate you. And that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

The question is: do you want to win the championship of your life or not?

Being disliked is hard. Not fulfilling your calling is hard. You get to choose your ‘hard.’

So what’s it gonna be?

Photo Credit: ESPN


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