Dear Friends, Have you been watching The Last Dance on Netflix? It's the docu-series about Michael Jordan's career and the impact he had not just on the Chicago Bulls and the NBA but on American pop culture. I have been riveted. In the The Last Dance, Michael Jordon said, "my parents put us in organised sports so that we could learn about life." I love sports documentaries for that reason because sports stories are about a person's triumphs, challenges, wins and losses.
Through sport we see life played out on a field, a court, a rink, a pitch, a pool, a gymnasium. The heartbreak, disappointments, matched with exhilaration and pride. Through sport we see the extremes to which a person is pushed both physically and mentally. And how mindfulness is the key to winning. The athletes though, would just call it focus and determination. The coach of the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan's hey day was Phil Jackson. Jackson was known as the "Zen master" who studied Buddhism and Native American spirituality. And he mediated, a skill he wanted to impart onto his team. That's where George Mumford comes in. Mumford, despite early skepticism from the likes of Jordan, ended up working with the Bulls for many years, helping them gain clarity and focus both on and off the court, helping them deal with the pressures of being superstars. It's not easy to get these athletes to try something like meditation where the focus is the power of the mind not the muscles, where the focus is on breath not the game plan. But Mumford understood them having been an athlete himself, he knew their stories, because he lived them as well. There is a great article in The Boston Globe that explores Mumford's journey from having dreams to being a heroin addict. It's a journey of struggle and finding one's place in the world that many can relate to. And it is with that understanding that he was able to connect with the likes of Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant. A connection that enabled them to do what they did best--getting into "the zone." What mediation and mindfulness opens us up to is the realisation that everything in life is about flow, and directing that flow. Psychologist Carol Dweck who wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says achieving success doesn't just come down to our talent and abilities, it also depends on what kind mindset we have. In a study published in 1998, Dweck "laid out the central idea that children told they were “really smart” after a test were less persistent than those congratulated for how hard they had worked. Headlines urged parents and teachers to “praise children for effort, not intelligence”. After all, persistence, drive, ambition, whatever you call it will determine one's success in life. It's what she would call "the growth mindset." She told Andrew Hill of the FT, that people with a growth mindset are those “who could just jump in and take risks and roll with the setbacks." It's a way of thinking that has shown to be an important skill in the corporate world (she has worked with Google, American Express) and in life. And it can all comes down to one word: "yet." She says in her powerful TED Talk, "Just the words "yet" or "not yet," we're finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students' mindsets."
Taking risks and being persistent is something the Zoom founder knows very well. Zoom, perhaps the buzzword for the entire pandemic experience, has become the lifesaving tool for people all around the world, a tool keeping us connected at a time when everything feels so disconnected. Yet for Eric Yuan, who saw his company's users rise 380% when compared to last year, Zoom was founded on a basic principal of human connection and happiness. His desire for connection grew when he was working far way from his then girlfriend (now wife) and wanted to see her whenever they spoke. His yearning for happiness at work stemmed from a time when he was deeply unhappy even when holding a successful position as vice president at the video conferencing software company Cisco Webex. He told CNBC , "every day, when I woke up, I was not very happy. I even did not want to go to the office to work.” He would go on to add, "The purpose of life is to pursue happiness, and I was not happy. Then what’s the risk?”
Yuan left Cisco Webex in 2011 and founded Zoom. And it was a risk that has paid off for him handsomely. His raison d'être, to be happy, is even embedded in his company tagline, "Delivering Happiness." A Zoom blog outlines the company's purpose, "At Zoom our mantra is simply to make our customers happy. You might think that mantra is just a marketing tagline, but it’s actually driven by our deep-seated belief that you’re happier at work if you’re able to connect on an emotional level with everyone you work with inside and outside your company. While we are enmeshed in technology in nearly every aspect of our professional lives, we’re still human, and to work effectively we need to connect emotionally." All of this, this search for happiness, this desire to connect with others, is based on the assumption that at our core we are essentially good people. Sure, we are capable of doing bad things but at our most basic level, we are good. That's the argument that Rutger Bregman makes anyway in his new book Humankind, A Hopeful History. You might remember Bregman from his appearance at the WEF in Davos last year where he, in one sentence, exposed the hypocrisy of climate crisis discussions amongst billionaires saying he felt as though he was “at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” That "water" would be the topic of taxing the rich, a subject no one wanted to touch. Jonathan Freedland, reviewing Humankind in The Guardian writes, "Stone by stone, Bregman breaks up the foundations that underpin much of our understanding of ourselves as callous, uncaring creatures hiding beneath a veneer of civilisation. That understanding has acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says: if people expect the worst of each other, they’ll get it. He can cite the experiments that show even lab rats behave worse when their handlers assume they’ll behave badly. Our true nature is to be kind, caring and cooperative, he argues. We used to be like that – and we can be again."
Our desire to be great (at whatever it is that we feel is our legacy) is grown out of desire to be seen, to be accepted, to be remembered. As Bregman argues, we are born kind and good. We see the evidence in children. It is the experiences they have growing up that instills in them the motivations for their actions as they become adults. The experiences could be something as simply, yet profoundly, wanting to maintain the level of love they feel from their parents, or trying to feel that love they perhaps didn't get when they needed it the most. We see that desire in Michael Jordan in The Last Dance, we see it any time an athlete wins or loses. It's as Danny Chau writes in The Atlantic about Michael Jordan's obsessive desire to win, at any costs, even being labelled "an asshole" by his teammates, saying, "Jordan’s compulsive need to win made him an unrepentant bully—we see it in the way he fought and berated teammates and executives—and The Last Dance does little to cast a negative light on his by-any-means-necessary mentality. But we do learn where it comes from: To hear Jordan admit that his competitiveness developed from the insecurity he felt trying to win his father’s approval feels revelatory. There is a thrill of discovery, which gets to the heart of what makes live sports such an important fixture of everyday life."
So much of human interaction and growth stems from our desire to feel seen and loved. So much of our ambition and drive stems from our desire to be something, to someone. And we see that in sports. There is always a backstory to every play, every swing, every stroke, every move. Every head that hangs low. Every fist pumped in the air.
It's no wonder my husband watches football, especially his team Manchester United. It's the emotional investment of the players' triumphs and losses. An investment that allows us to feel that somehow, in some way we are part of something bigger than us, something great.