Growing up in Chicagoland in the 1990s, I thought the Bulls were just supposed to win, every year. I didn’t remember a time when they didn’t – except for that bizarre period when Michael Jordan left superstardom behind to try his hand at minor league baseball.
None of us understood that sideshow act. Why leave guaranteed NBA titles out there for someone else to take? All Jordan did was win. I never doubted they’d be champs, and I assumed that Jordan and Pippen and B.J. Armstrong and Co. felt the same. No nerves. No doubt. Just utter confidence.
I started thinking about all of this when I read a recent blog post on Her Campus about collegiate anxiety – which can be compounded by an overload of exams, lack of sleep, worries about whether you’ve picked the right major or if you’re going to have a job when you graduate.
Lizabeth Roemer, a psychology professor at UMass-Boston, was quoted in the story. “Because anxiety naturally leads people to avoid feared situations,” Roemer said, “people with anxiety disorders often lead more narrow lives and don’t do things that matter to them to avoid feeling distressed and anxious.”
How come guys like Michael Jordan never seemed distressed or anxious? Though I wasn’t old enough to remember it, I knew Jordan had done a lot of losing early in his career. His first four years as a Bull, he was booted in the first round of the playoffs. Famously, he didn’t even make his varsity team early in high school.
Sometimes, I feel like much of our generation lacks the confidence to push through embarrassing setbacks like that. It’s easy to generalize, but it seems that many kids who grew up in the late ‘80s were raised by parents who tried to build up self-esteem by telling their children how wonderful and brilliant and talented they were. In a way, it’s hard to fault them. Our generation grew up gorging itself on more information than our parents could have ever dreamed of. By 10 years old, many of us must have seemed like walking encyclopedias to the Boomers and early Gen-Xers who raised us.
But I wonder if all that has produced a mindset that undermines our confidence in difficult times. In the current recession, many of us have met an enemy we understand, but still can’t seem to conquer. And now we doubt ourselves, thinking that maybe all the exceptional qualities our parents told us we had were just hype. “If I’m really that smart, why can’t I find a paying job like my parents did?” We lean on cynicism, thinking that at least if we’re going to fail, we’ll diminish the embarrassment by showing we were smart enough to see it coming.
Maybe we wouldn’t think that way if we’d been told that intelligence and talent are positive attributes, but hard work and positivity are the only things that can produce greatness. Some will add passion to that list, but I’d argue that passion – while massively important – is simply the best way to achieve those two qualities.
Michael Jordan wasn’t born great at basketball. But he practiced longer and worked harder than anyone else at Laney High School, then the University of North Carolina, and finally, the NBA. Not only that, but he had an uncanny ability to stay confident in the face of failure.
Jordan’s coach, Phil Jackson, once said this about MJ:
“Probably one of the most remarkable shots [from Jordan’s career] that everyone remembers is the shot he made against Cleveland [to win the first round of the 1989 playoffs]. But they don’t remember that the night before, he missed 3 of 6 foul shots that would have sealed the game for us, and we wouldn’t have had to go to the fifth game. A normal player would have said, “Oh, I cost us this opportunity” — probably beat themselves up over it. Michael, the next day that we played Cleveland got on the bus and said “Have no fear. We’re going to win this ball game.”
So pick it up, millennials. Even though the odds are against you, and even though you may fail. Nothing is guaranteed, but you do have to believe to get there.