June 7, 1995 was a terrible day for Orlando Magic fans. It was a far worse day for Nick Anderson, the first drafted player for an upstart NBA franchise, selected #11 in 1989. Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. Ten and a half seconds left and Anderson goes to the line for 2 free throws. If he makes just one, the game is sealed. He misses both of them, but gets his own rebound and is fouled again. He goes back to the line. It’s a big time do over. Anderson steps to the line, visibly tense. Two more opportunities to put the game away. But he missed them both…again. It was a 4-missed-free-throw outlier for Nick Anderson. And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
The Magic lost 120-118. Houston won the championship in a sweep, 4 games to zero.
Scapegoating is easy. Fans and perhaps teammates reflected on Anderson’s blown opportunity to sink just one free throw out of four to win game 1. All that what if-ing began. What if he had made one of those shots?
Rarely is scapegoating valid. It’s not likely very fair, but when we’re disappointed we don’t care about fair. Or valid. We just want somebody or something to blame. Somebody other than ourselves.
Truth is, the Houston Rockets had a stable of veteran players while Orlando had been built of mostly young, first-time NBA players.
Nick Anderson, the villain, grew up in gangland Chicago. By the time he arrived at the NBA he had overcome more adversity than many of us see our entire lives. In the grand scheme of things, missing a free throw in one game – albeit a very big game – wasn’t the toughest thing he had endured.
Years later – 20 years later to be exact – Anderson said, “We made young mistakes. They made veteran moves.” And there it is. Not just the title for today’s show, but a truth born of years of reflection.
Sadly, Nick Anderson was never the same as a professional basketball player. His confidence shot, the weight of his mishap growing increasingly heavier…he was never again the same player. The #11 pick in the NBA draft in 1989 tumbled in performance. His free throw percentage dropped consistently after 1995 and by 1999 he was gone from Orlando. He kicked around the league for a few more years, but he was done. Doomed by the images in his head of missing a critical shot.
Mistakes are easy. Recovery is hard.
Nick Anderson the player couldn’t find his confidence once it was lost. As he approaches the 21st anniversary of the ordeal, he’s now able to look back on it with wiser perspective. And he’s helping younger players in the process. Such is the case of hard lessons learned. We suffer for them while others benefit. There’s reward in that. BIG REWARD.
Anderson’s mistake was on a big, big stage in front of an international audience – the NBA Finals. The severity was elevated because it was a fundamental skill of basketball, shooting free throws. Then add to it the solo task where all eyes are on just one player, the guy standing at the line. Pile onto it, for good measure, that he had 4 (FOUR) chances to make one. Poor Nick experienced the perfect storm of awful.
“It’s in your head,” isn’t comforting to anybody who has IT in their head. The endless video loop played in his head over and over and over. It’s still likely playing in his head, but hopefully not as often. Oh, what might have been? That’s the weight of it. The thoughts of what might have been if he’d just sunk one basket.
Mistakes, poor play and failure. Sometimes they happen at the worst possible time. Stupidity has an uncanny ability to jump up out of nowhere. Sometimes it defines us. Well, to be more accurate – we let it define us. Poor Nick Anderson had help because fans, sports casters and maybe even teammates defined him by it. You and I usually fail in complete anonymity. It just feels like we’re doing it in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden.
Courage boils down to willingness. Those of us who are more willing can display more courage. Because we’re willing to try. Attempting is one thing. Succeeding is something often very different.
Nick Anderson made 4 attempts. He had to step to the foul line and make those free-throw attempts. It wasn’t enough.
That’s discouraging. Everybody knows what that feels like.
We like to think that our courage to attempt will be good enough. Otherwise, it may quickly become too discouraging…prompting us to just quit. It happens on that days when we don’t want to get out of bed. Days when we’d prefer to not make the attempt, rather wishing we could just throw in the towel.
The blame of failure weighs heavy. Even the risk of shouldering that weight can make it feel like gravity multiplied overnight. Now, in the morning we feel glued to our mattress, our only comfort in the covers we want to pull over our head. Blame is the risk we run when we attempt something. But what’s the option? To try or attempt nothing! That’s no life.
Those who blame Nick Anderson the most are probably the fans, people who have never had, or been given the chance to stand at an NBA free-throw line ever. Not once. They couldn’t likely hit a free-throw during a half-time exhibition, much less during an NBA Championship game when the game is on the line. The best many of us could do would be to wet ourselves. Thankfully Nick didn’t do that. He at least hit the rim.
We expect so much. Of others.
Less of ourselves.
Except when the game is on the line. Then we expect to be perfect. Or at least 25% perfect – making 1 of 4 free-throws.
Forget that the team had the ability and opportunity to avoid taking the game down to the line quite that close. One more 2 point bucket would have avoided the entire scenario Nick Anderson found himself in. But the team failed collectively to sink one more 2-point bucket. Just one. One more score would have diminished all that pressure on Nick’s shoulders as he stood at the line.
But forget that. Now it’s all on Nick. We need Nick to come through. We expect him to come through. And when he didn’t — whew! We can feel better about ourselves because it was him at the line, not us.
Now Nick has the ghosts living with him. And boy we’re glad it’s not us.
Over the weeks, months and years it’s been a grind for Nick. The mind plays tricks on us. “If only” is among the worst endless loops that plays in our heads.
If only I’d gotten that job.
If only she’s stayed with me.
If only I’d been given that chance.
If only I’d taken advantage of that chance.
If only they’d selected me.
If only that hadn’t happened to me.
But those things didn’t happen. And it changed things for us. At the time it felt like things might end like that. I’m sure Nick felt like it was the end. It got in his head. It consumed him. Wrecking his confidence, occupying his mind and his life. In time his NBA career did end. As a player.
Now he’s the community ambassador of the Orlando Magic. He speaks to lots of kids. I guarantee the experience has given him a perspective and an ability to serve kids. The man understands adversity. And the weight of failure.
He’s joked before about telling kids that they have 10 seconds left to make one of four free-throws. “I can’t shoot it for you because I already missed four,” he said. At least now he’s got some sense of humor about it, but I’m sure it’s mostly a coverup.
He told a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, “I don’t think I can ever get over it. But you learn. I’ve had to learn to handle it. It’s like that Magic Johnson Dove commercial where he says he’s comfortable in his own skin. I’m comfortable in mine now.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill
One of the most quotable men in history endured years of fretting about, and dealing with world-wide wars, depression and many burdens in life. He didn’t miss four free-throws. His actions and decisions impacted more than one city’s basketball team.
How do you carry that weight? Because Churchill saw the future first, like all great leaders. That vision compelled him to attempt things and to sometimes succeed. He failed plenty. That’s what happens with men and women of action. Like baseball players stepping into the batter’s box, the most at bats — the more strike outs are likely. But if we don’t step into the opportunity, we have no chance to get a hit.
I’m not naive that sometimes failure isn’t an option in the sense that we simply must get it right. Surgeons live with that pressure every day they perform. Lives hinge on their ability to attempt it, and succeed at it. You have to do the same thing every time you drive a car. Your life and the life of your passengers depends on you getting it right. Mostly, these things do go right. Airline pilots, surgeons and drivers get it right more often than not. So do those minimum wage workers at the fast-food drive through windows. They get our order 100% right most of the time.
It’s not like any of us can shy away from life’s everyday pressures.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
― Winston S. Churchill
No loss of enthusiasm? That’s hard. Churchill said it, but he didn’t obey it. Biographers report he was very prone to bouts of being blue. Life and his own challenges would sometimes put him into a funk. It was hardly a life with no loss of enthusiasm. It’s still great advice.
Reducing our time in the funk may be key. Being in a funk is one thing. Staying in a funk, or deciding to take up residency there is something quite different. At some point we need to find our way back toward optimism. Not that bright-eyed, rosy glassed kind, but that realistic kind. That kind that understand failure is a universal experience where there are no exemptions. The kind that helps us embrace the belief – yes, the BELIEF – that everything will be alright.
NBA experts seem to universally think that if Shaq had remained with the team, and had Penny Hardaway not injured his knee — and had these 2 superstars remained on the team together, Orlando would have likely had not one NBA championship, but multiple ones. But it never happened. Nick Anderson had nothing to do with Shaq’s big ego, or Penny’s injury. Nor did he bear the complete responsibility for the score of that game being so close at the end. All the players on the court that night were responsible.
Anderson was likely right. The Houston Rockets that year had some veteran players who better understood the situation and how to handle it. They made veteran plays. They performed just slightly better under pressure while Nick’s Orlando Magic team, driven by young upcoming superstars made mistakes prone to less experienced players.
In spite of all their good fortune to get two stud players: Shaq in 1992 and Hardaway in 1993 (both technically number 1 picks)…the team got swallowed by the cracks. It wasn’t one guy’s fault. It was Nick Anderson missing those free- throws, it was the team not playing well enough to avoid that situation…it was Shaq’s leaving for Los Angeles because his ego couldn’t handle sharing the spotlight with Hardaway…it was Penny’s knee injury. Things happened that many of them – maybe all of them – regret. Shaq later admitted he should have stayed in Orlando. Penny certainly wishes his knee had held up. Anderson certainly wishes he’d sunk just one of those free-throws.
The bottom line is that these guys were young, less experienced in pressure situations and lacked the wisdom necessary to see a bigger picture. They made young mistakes and suffered failure at the hands of a team that had survived their own young mistakes in years past and now made veteran moves. The goal – our collective goal – is to recognize our situation, our strengths, our opportunities and our challenges in real-time. Then, to be able to effectively execute up to our full ability.
“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”
― Coco Chanel
Recognition is one thing. Talent and the ability to put that talent to work is the real difference maker. First, see the wall, then find the door. Next, find the knob and turn it. When we can do both, we make veteran moves and we win more often.
All you can do is all you can do.
“The scientific nature of the ordinary man is to go on out and do the best you can.” -John Prine
I’m an ordinary man. Very ordinary. Don’t mock me. You’re ordinary, too. That’s not a bad thing. Not doing our best is a bad thing, but today we’re going to work on that. That’s right. Today we’re going to try to fix that. At least for a little while. Who can be sure if it’ll stick or not. I mean, that’s the weird thing about inspiration. It doesn’t last long. An hour from now you’ll likely have already lost any traction I hope to help give you. If you’re really tenacious and determined…you might be engaged with your new found inspiration from today’s show for 4 hours. After that, it’s like hydrocodone…you’ll need a new dose.
That little kid in that graphic is my grandson. One of them. Cute, isn’t he? I used him for today’s episode for one big reason. Okay, two if you count his cuteness (and I do). The other reason is because he’s just one representative of the most important people on the planet to me. You’ve got people like him. I hope you’re blessed to have some little people like him. But if not, you’ve got some older people who matter a great deal to you. That’s important to the show today because it’s about us doing the best we can. It’s really about why we go out and do our best. And why we sometimes fail to do our best.
You know what happens. It happens to you. Regularly. Just like it happens to me.
We lose focus. Our concentration slips. Selfishness kicks in. We forget these people who matter the most to us. Foolish choices – self-centered decisions – bring about bad behavior. Sometimes, shameful behavior. We don’t do our best. Instead we do our worst only recognizing our foolishness after the fact.
We focus only on ourselves and even though we may be surrounded by people we love – and who love us – we’re lonely in that moment of our stupidity. Not doing our best.
“Ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” is a far cry from doing our best. Foolishness makes us consider it synonymous, but we all know better. The dad who hits the bar after work says it. Tell that to the wife and kids waiting at home. The mom who has to go out twice a week with the girls to party while some teenager baby sits the kids. Just two examples of failure to do our best by and for the people we claim to love.
Oh, you’re wanting to focus on doing our best when it comes to accomplishments? No, that’s not the point. Not today. See, we’re ordinary people doing ordinary things. Sure, we’re pretty good at some things. Not so good at other things. This isn’t about excellence. Or proficiency. It’s about living our daily lives and doing the best we can.
I’m presupposing that you’re not world-class at anything. That’s okay. We can’t all be world-class. Doesn’t mean we can’t do our best.
That little boy up there doesn’t care if I’m world-class or not. Fact is, he wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Think about the world’s best anything. Go ahead. Think about it. What you thinking about? An athlete? A doctor? A scientist? An artist? A musician? It doesn’t matter. That person can be esteemed highly by society and everybody in the world, but back home some little face may not see it. The little face may just be constantly disappointed while the world looks on with admiration. Is that being the best a person can be?
There are too many days that I’ve been a bad boy. I’ve not done the best I can. Neglect. Procrastination. Avoidance. These are some of the biggest distractions we suffer.
We can tell ourselves that we’re going to do better. Tomorrow. Or even later today.
But when the day is done, we’ve been a bad boy again. It becomes our way of life. A habit.
Failing to do our best is every bit the habit that doing our best is. Only worse. Much worse. The inertia has a direction. We’re the captain, setting sails. Steering the rudder. It just doesn’t feel like we’re the captain. It feels like other people are. Or our circumstances are. Or our upbringing. Our best isn’t possible because we’ve got too many people and too many things hindering us. At least that’s what we sometimes tell ourselves because we enjoy excuses. It makes us feel like a victim. Things are beyond our control. That way we’re not responsible. It’s random luck – in our case, bad luck.
We’re not ready to let go of the constraints, the distractions. We grow comfortable with our complacency. Do you ever wonder what it’s going to take for you to get ready to give it up and start doing the best you can? Yeah, me, too.
The best – our best – is hard to compute. Knowing what we want to hang onto is much easier. And in the moment, it feels more comfortable than being challenged to improve to do our best.
Sometimes I hear a voice in my head saying, “I’m not ready.” What it take to be ready? What do we need to do get ready? What’s it going to take to figure things out?
Time alone helps. For awhile. Self-awareness requires time spent with ourselves. It’s really not just time though. Intentional, purposeful time thinking about our life, abilities, challenges, opportunities and relationships is way more than just spending time alone with our thoughts. Most of us aren’t in the habit of doing that. We’re far more habitual about worrying and fretting. I’m suggesting we stop doing that. It doesn’t help us. Whatever pleasure we get feeling sorry for ourselves is short-lived. Instead, set aside some time to think about, and write.
Write down what’s going well in your life. List what you’re thankful for – gratitude is something we can all incorporate more into our lives. I’m starting with the good because it’s counter to how we usually operate. We jump straight to the problems, the worry points. Don’t. Instead, focus on the upsides of your life. Embrace it for a good long while. Dwell on it.
I’ve found it helpful to not confuse alone time. If you’ve spent 30 minutes or more embracing gratitude and concentrating on what’s going well in your life…avoid jumping straight to something else. Either keep going with those good vibes or end your time alone to do something else. I’ve found it ruins the work I’ve done to jump straight to thinking about my problems. Table that. Resist.
Don’t rob yourself of the benefits of holding in your head all that good work you’ve just done – work to focus on the things going well. Just because your time alone session is over doesn’t mean you’re not going to benefit from the work. It’s an investment in being your best. Like any investment account that delivers a return, your time dwelling on the good stuff will continue long after this session. The more often – and the longer we can hold a good thought, the more habitual it can be for us to think in ways that can fuel our improvement.
Confidence is a major benefit of this practice. Not just confidence in ourselves, but confidence in our lives. I’m not discounting skill or even luck, but in most things – not in everything, of course (like things very technical, or athletic) – inner strength or confidence makes an enormous impact on our best. Belief doesn’t change until we put in the work. It takes more than some cute phrases written on our bathroom mirror, or some self-help audio.
Holding these thoughts – these truths – of what’s working well in our life (even if it’s things that don’t seem entirely like our own doing) gives us strength. For example, my relationship with my wife is a top tier positive thing in my life. I don’t really think of my marriage, or my wife, as an accomplishment – even though it sort of is. But thinking of how grateful I am to have her can’t help, but make me stronger! And the more I think about how grateful I am for her, the more thankful I am for her. That’s how these things work. Hold those good thoughts and you’ll fuel having more of them. I guarantee you’ll become stronger if you adopt this habit.
I know you’re anxious to jump to your problems because you think by dwelling on those you’ll figure out better solutions. If that’s true, then why hasn’t it always worked in the past? Because obsessing about problems doesn’t often help us figure them out. That’s why when we physically and mentally go somewhere else we experience some breakthrough thought. “I get my best ideas in the shower,” is a common refrain. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s such a staple idea we all know what it means. It means when we stopped thinking about the problem, the solution came – or came to us more easily.
Of course, many of us think about our problems in the context of wishing things were better. Or feeling sorry for ourselves. Or moaning about our situation. Self-pity isn’t a solid solution for doing our best. “He’s a world-class complainer” isn’t exactly what we hope others will say about us. I know some world-class complainers. They seem to enjoy it, but they’re not fun to be around. Neither are you when you embrace the crutch of feeling sorry for yourself. It’s a ridiculously selfish behavior, too. You scream at the world, “Look at me. Feel sorry for me.” Some will. Most won’t. Because we’re all busy with our lives and trying to figure out our own problems. You think I don’t have enough of my own that I need to know all the details of yours?
That’s not productive toward doing our best. What can be productive is thinking about solutions. I know, it’s much harder to do. Which is probably why most of us don’t do it as often as we should. It’s just easier to dwell on what’s broken than to think of how to best fix it. So we start wishing and thinking “what if?” thoughts. We say to ourselves how wonderful it would be if this spectacular thing would happen, or if that thing would suddenly come our way. Suddenly our problem isn’t being considered in the light of a real-world solution. Instead, we’ve embraced hoping something good would land in our lap.
I’m not using hope as the opposite of hopelessness. I’m using it in the sense of wishful thinking, that passive activity that occupies so much of our lives in the place of putting in the work.
Now it’s time to get our brains engaged with ideas of what we can do to fix what ails us. But first, let’s inventory what we’ve done up to this point to fix the problem. We want to do our best, but we’re not doing our best. So what are we doing? What have we done so far to remedy this?
I don’t care how systematic you are with this process. The value is going through the process! The process centers on first taking inventory of what you’ve tried so far because it hasn’t worked. If it had you wouldn’t still have the problem. By seeing what you’ve tried you’re now open to consider what you’ve yet to try. Consider possibilities because that’s all they are at this point. Until you try them, they’re all possibilities. Don’t talk yourself out of anything. Or into anything. Write them down. All of them. The things you’ve yet to try.
There’s no way to know which one will work. Or which one might work best. This much is likely though – by trying something different you’ll improve. Even if it doesn’t work you’ll learn something. This is about doing your best. The only way to find that is by trying things until you figure it out. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe not.
Remember, this is about going out and doing the best we can. It’s not about doing better than somebody else. Or about finding wild success. You can’t likely control those — and many other things. You can control your effort. You can control how hard you work at doing your best.
You know I’m a hockey fan and we’re now down to the final 4 teams – the Eastern Conference Finals and the Western Conference Finals. Each team has the talent to win the Stanley Cup. Only one team will win though. And it won’t be because of the X’s and O’s of the game plan. They’ve all got a solid game plan in place or they wouldn’t have made it this far. We’re way past the competence phase of the game. Now, it gets down to more basic, fundamental things like fitness, health and will. You’ll hear these NHL coaches talk about their team’s effort.
They don’t just focus on that because it sounds good. They do it because it’s true. And because they know it’s the one thing that separates winning from losing — and because they know each player can control it. Players can’t control lucky or unlucky bounces of the puck. Puck luck happens — just like all other forms of luck. Teams don’t rely on puck luck to win the Stanley Cup though. Instead, they rely on all their experience, training and skill. Mostly, they rely on their own determination and will. They know if they out work the other team they’ll likely find success. Along the way, they’ll wrestle with confidence ebbs and flows, but if they persist in giving it all they’ve got…their confidence will find a height sufficient to play their best.
When you start to seriously, intentionally survey your life’s performance examine your actions in light of three simple statements – each of them consisting of 2 words each:
That’s how you’ll find your path to do the best you can.