Becoming the Michael Jordan of your niche: A sports analogy to life.

I am 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 242 pounds. The CDC classifies me as obese. I never found the determination to do a workout despite it. But, the first time I watched The Last Dance, I ran 140 miles (225 km) in 15 days.

Becoming the Michael Jordan of your niche: A sports analogy to life.

Last week, I was watching The Last Dance on Netflix. For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, allow me to paint a picture. The Last Dance is a sports documentary that revolves around the career of Michael Jordan, with a particular focus on his final season with the Chicago Bulls. In my personal opinion, it is one of the greatest shows ever made. And no, I am not talking about the technical finesse of the show. I am not qualified to critique that. My opinion is limited to the content of the show. Why do I say that? Read on!

My best 9.3 mile run. 

I am 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 242 pounds. The CDC (Centres for Disease Control & Prevention) classifies me as obese. I did consider starting some workout regimen for a long time but never found the determination to do it. I was burnt out after grad school and had just started work. But, the first time I watched the show accidentally, I ran 140 miles (225 km) in 15 days. According to Strava, the average distance logged per run stood at 4 miles in 2020. I ran about 9.3 miles (15 km) a day for 15 days. I am aware that the world record for speed walking is 5:30 min/mile, and I ran at 15:12 min/mile (see picture above). My limited point is that the TV show motivated me to get out of my comfort zone and finish a strenuous fifteen-day challenge. This time around, I started drawing parallels between the show and life in general. I aspire to be the Michael Jordan of my niche. I believe it is a goal worth pursuing. I think that the show has a lot to offer to prepare oneself for such a life. Here are my two cents on the subject.

Success is hard, even for Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan joined Chicago Bulls in the year 1984. He won his first NBA championship in the year 1991, a full seven years later. He continued to play for the eighth year despite having lost the previous seven years.

Be it in my PhD, or my professional career, success takes a long time to brew. Anything worth pursuing is worth failing at. I realize the need to remain patient and play the long game. As Nic Haralambous suggests, I have begun to plan in decades, think in years, work in months, live in days.

Finding a Phil Jackson for yourself

Phil Jackson was the Bulls head coach from 1989 to 1998. Under his guidance, the Bulls went on to win six championships in nine years. He went on to coach Los Angeles Lakers next, and they won five titles during his tenure. Michael Jordan initially disliked Phil because he asked him to pass the ball around and allow others to help. However, towards the end of 1998, Phil decided to move on; Michael retired too, not wanting to play with another coach.

I need to find that Phil Jackson, a mentor, to navigate my professional life. He/she needs to tell me when I am wrong and genuinely care for my success. I realize that more often than not, it is somebody who has a stake in my success. I have begun the hunt, hoping to find the Phil for my life.

Everybody needs a Scottie Pippen.

If Michael Jordan was the Butch Cassidy of Bulls, Scottie Pippen was the Sundance Kid. They fought their battles together, failed together and finally succeeded together. Along the journey, Scottie and Jordan helped each other in their desire to win a championship. They supported each other on-field and off-field too. They contributed to each other's success enormously and made the journey a meaningful pursuit.

In my personal life, my wife is my Scottie (although if you ask her, she will say I am her Scottie). We help each other through our journeys, fight our battles and navigate life together. We find inspiration in each other's success and face defeat as a team. I have a few friends/cousins whom I talk to, learn from and travel together in life from afar. In my professional life, that is a search worthy of my undertaking.

Everybody burns out. Take a break

Crushed by his father's death, a mentally exhausted Jordan retires in 1993 from professional basketball. He goes on to play at a minor league baseball for the next eighteen months. The show reveals that Jordan actively considered retirement for almost a year, and the Olympic dream team run added to the exhaustion. His decision sent shockwaves through the basketball fraternity. His announcement appeared on the front pages of every major newspaper in the world. If you asked any pundit at the time, they would have called it career suicide. Yet, after coming back, the Bulls go on to win three more championships under his leadership.

I seriously considered taking a break after my PhD. I wanted to rejuvenate my mental capacity by doing something else. But my immigration status did not allow me the luxury to do that. Even if it did, my general fear would have overruled it. I believe such a decision becomes easy when we operate from the point of confidence. When in doubt, we always stick to the safest choice.

To become Michael Jordan, you need to be Michael Jordan.

Early in his career, when Michael starts college, Roy Williams, his university coach, recalls an exciting anecdote in the documentary.

Michael: I want to be the best player to have ever played,
Roy: You got to work harder than you did in high school.
Michael: I work as hard as everybody.
Roy: Excuse me, I thought you wanted to be the best player ever to play here.
Michael: I am going to show you. Nobody will ever work as hard as I work.

His singular focus to succeed at any cost propels him to win six championships several years down the line. Consequently, he holds the world record for the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards won (six times). He constructs reasons to succeed, even if it doesn't always make sense to the world around him. He wills himself to victory by hard work, grit and determination.

In my opinion, this is the most important lesson. To become Michael Jordan, you need to be Michael Jordan. I am sure most of us aspire to success. But, the hunger to pursue excellence at the level that Michael did is a challenge in itself. The clarity to commit ourselves to such a lofty goal is the first step in the process. Follow that with the necessary discipline, hard work & commitment, and success is the by-product of such a pursuit.

More often than not, I struggled with the question, 'Do I need to succeed so badly?' And the answer isn't pretty always. My struggle stemmed from the need to find the meaning of life. And I am incrementally convinced that there is no intrinsic meaning to life in the broad scheme of things. But, that opened a new door for me. If there is no inherent meaning to life or I am barred from knowing the why, I can choose my meaning to life. It then becomes a matter of me saying, 'Yes, I need to succeed so badly.' Why, you ask? Because I believe it is a meaningful pursuit that brings satisfaction to my life.

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