Lessons from the heights His Airness couldn’t reach

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At the pinnacle of his powers, the most electrifying athlete to ever set foot on a basketball court decided to forego millions and deprive fans of two years of his prime to develop into a decent minor league baseball player.

What lunatic trades greatness for mediocrity? How hilarious is it that Michael Jordan actually played baseball? How both awesome and frustrating would it be if LeBron decided to play football next season?

While there is no shortage of critics, Jordan remembers those baseball years fondly. He was forced to pour countless hours into refining fundamentals.

“I gave dedication to the game of baseball a true effort. I wasn’t there making money. I wasn’t there endorsing any product. It was truly for love of the game… I had the freedom to make a choice, and no one seemed to understand that. That I can walk away from the game and not worry about the stardom, the money. Those are all monetary things that don’t mean much to me in a way. I play the game because I love the game. If I don’t have a purpose I walk away from the game.”

Michael-jordan-dunkWork ethic is not what kept MJ from reaching the majors. Talent wasn’t the problem either. It was repetitions; while he’d shot a million free throws over the previous twelve years, his counterparts had taken a million swings.

Through entering a medium in which he looked up and saw superiors even he couldn’t jump high enough to touch, His Airness grew to appreciate the altitude he’d reached at basketball. Trying his luck at a different mountain inspired memories of his younger self’s toils back when clouds hid the summit of Mt. Basketball.

“I was on a pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that. And I think that’s what minor league baseball did to me… I think the whole process was a learning experience for me. Being out here makes it more exciting to get a fresh start with what I’ve known and what I’ve learnt over the years.”

To me, the most inspiring thing Jordan ever did was to give up his throne to build himself from scratch at something new. Despite incomprehensible peer pressure and financial motivation to maintain his reign atop basketball’s food chain, he lived for himself. Having played baseball, he now owns an experience that adds spice and perspective to his life.

Most of us aren’t Michael Jordan at anything. But we have our comfort zones. And braving the uncomfortable and building new angles to ourselves – while often humbling and difficult – keeps lives from becoming stale.

Variety of HobbiesThere are infinite ways in which people derive joy, each of which has a unique flavor. The more hobbies one learns, the more experience one has on the forms pleasure might take. The wider one’s net of pursuits, the more people with whom one might connect. The more activities one tries, the more one understands and develops one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ability to learn. And the more pleasures a person knows, the more fulfilling endeavors one might share with and teach one’s loved ones.

Last year, I couldn’t swim two laps without stopping to gasp for air. But I wanted to become a triathlete, so I needed to build my swimming ability from scratch. By the holiday season, my endurance was solid, but grey-haired women on kickboards were still passing me. Through the swimming portions of subsequent triathlons, I grew an appreciation for how courageous it is to enter a competition knowing you’re not very talented. Because visibility is so poor in open water, faster swimmers would crawl over me and toss me like a rag doll when passing me.

SpecializationWhile unpleasant and, from a competitive standpoint, my worst leg, after completing triathlons I have been proudest of my swim performance because building my swimming ability has taken the most work. Capitalism tells people to do what they’re best at relative to others. What comes easy, however, isn’t always what people find fulfilling. When the goal is accomplished, that awareness of all those little steps makes that end result feel great even if it only takes a more talented person one step to travel the same distance.

What’s doubly impressive about Jordan is that he returned to basketball arguably a better player – winning three consecutive NBA titles – than when he retired. What’s inspiring, however, is that effortless maintenance of refined crafts is not unique to MJ. For the 3-4 years after a former #1 squash player retires, he still regularly beats top 30 players. Thanks to the hours logged between the ages of 8 and 10, I’m still a God at Tetris. If you’ve figured out how to party, partying less doesn’t render you significantly less good at partying. And it might even make you better.

Earlier this summer, a friend relayed the following career advice, “Be careful what you get good at because it’s what you’ll do over and over again.” Capitalism encourages specialization. A carpenter does not receive a raise for improving as a sommelier.

What’s even sadder is that, as this free time contracts – usually when a person gets older and is saddled with increased professional and domestic responsibilities – allotting the hours to developing a new hobby, a new angle through which to derive pleasure, becomes increasingly exhausting. In a way, Jordan had more leeway than the rest of us; at age thirty-two he had already made his fortune and put together a Hall of Fame career. But for those of us with more typical career arcs, the twenties are a prudent decade for self-expansion.

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