Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Cost of Greatness

Lakers' coach Phil Jackson (or PJ as the announcers are starting to call him) can be a bit of a dick. He makes $10 million a year but he can't be bothered to call a time out when the other team is making a run (he says he wants the players to figure it out for themselves). His coaching philosophy seems to consist of 1) scowling on the sidelines and 2) needling players in public interviews so that they'll be embarrassed to read about themselves in print and play harder the next game.

But the dude does have 9 rings, so there's that.

Thursday the Los Angeles Times had a fascinating article on the extraordinary maturation of Lakers' center Andrew Bynum. Drafted out of high school, Bynum is now in his third year in the league -- and he's starting to put up Shaq-like numbers every night. I was fascinated by Jackson's insights into what it takes to be great in the NBA:

Now that Bynum has taken another massive developmental step in his third NBA season, Coach Phil Jackson was asked Wednesday if there was anything that could have made it happen sooner.

He paused for seven seconds before answering.


In what way?

"It's the idea of 'OK, yeah, I've got to dedicate myself to this process and that's a start.' Now you find someone that's going to be your workout guy.

"You start it by saying, 'I'm an alcoholic, I need to go to AA.' It's the same process: 'I need to get in the best possible shape I can. I need to have a vested interest in that.' As soon as you do that, you turn the corner."


"When Andrew came to the Lakers, he sat down and made a commitment to us -- even though he was 17 years old and inexperienced, he was going to work as hard as he could at this process," Jackson said.

What's fascinating to me is that Bynum came into the league with all the natural talent in the world -- 7 feet tall, 33 inch vertical, 7 foot 3 inch wingspan, and he can shoot free-throws (unlike Shaq). Yet in spite of all those natural gifts, listening to Jackson it's clear that greatness still requires everything. A commitment every minute of every day for years and years before it starts to pay off.

That's been my experience in the world. The few times I felt like I really excelled at something, it required everything (waking, sleeping, eating, breathing, dreaming -- every minute focused on working towards the goal). Which is fine for a motivational poster with an eagle on it or something. But when is the cost too high? (In my experience, I've found that the cost is often too high).

Americans act like greatness is a birthright. But the unspoken reality is that it requires everything, for years, with no certainty of success. Dancers, musicians, athletes, politicians, artists, business people. It seems to me that greatness leaves no room for work life balance, no room for family, no room for staring up through the branches of a tree and just breathing. (For example think about all the greats -- from Michael Jordan to Mahatma Gandhi and look at what a mess their family life was). It seems to me that we are casual (or simply never ask) about the costs of greatness in this country ("oh yeah, of course, that's just what it takes.")

Perhaps a utopian society needs a new definition of greatness that isn't about greatest peak, greatest valley, greatest volume, or greatest quantity. What does greatness of moderation look like? What does greatness of character truly look like? What is greatness of balance? Or are those even important questions to ask?

It just seems like society sacrifices a few people on the altar of greatness for our own entertainment pleasure. But then I pick up a great book or watch Andrew Bynum play and I'm so thankful for the experience, the momentary identification with the peak, that the price doesn't seem too high (of course, I'm not the one paying it!). I wonder if perhaps there is a paradox waiting to be discovered here -- that truly great societies (that is, truly happy societies) don't place a premium on individual greatness -- instead realizing that happiness comes from relationships and relationships are not best served by pursuing extremes?

I'd welcome any insights you may have in the comments.

Update #1: I've been chewing on the ideas in this post and have an additional thought. I think there are many kinds of love. Romantic love for a partner, love for family members, love for friends, love of nature... I think greatness can sometimes be considered love of others or love for all. Certainly the sort of love for others that you see in revolutionary movements -- where people are willing to sacrifice everything for love of country and love of fellow human beings -- exists alongside and is different from romantic love (although there is certainly a romance to revolutionary love too). So I guess I'm saying that the pursuit of greatness can emanate from a powerful love of others. I think it can still pose complications for balance and relationships -- but it's not all just a question of costs -- sometimes it's driven by an enormous love which is honorable.

Update #2: Just like that Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury in the game on Sunday and is expected to miss the next 8 weeks (somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games!). Suddenly the Lakers are in a free fall, unsure of where they are going to get their points on offense (other than Kobe) and their stops on defense.

No comments: