The GOAT, But At What Cost?

The Last Dance, the ten episode Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls documentary, was a  welcomed oasis in the live sports desert some of us are wandering aimlessly in.

But even at eightish hours, it felt woefully incomplete in that it ignored the the costs of ultimate professional success on personal well-being.

The doc’s one overarching insight was that Jordan’s work ethic, drive, and competitiveness were unparalleled; as a result, none of his teammates ever measured up. And so he beat them down, to the point that they had no affection for him.

Here’s Noam Scheiber describing the dynamic in The New York Times:

“As Jordan himself said of his teammates in ‘The Last Dance,’: ‘I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.’

More than 15 years after Jordan retired from professional basketball — for the third time — the mix of power and grace he displayed on the court remains a breathless thrill. But his leadership style, such as it was, feels outdated.

In the intervening years, a chorus of experts has warned employers, investors and board members against tolerating such cruel or demeaning behavior. Academics and government officials have used terms like ‘toxic worker’ or ‘superstar harasser’ in preaching vigilance against flawed if seemingly talented performers.

‘Every organization needs the ‘no-asshole rule’ because meanspirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves,’ Robert Sutton, a Stanford University management professor, wrote in a 2007 best seller named for that rule.

Watching the Michael Jordan depicted in ‘The Last Dance’ presents a paradox of sorts: The Bulls dominate the league. Yet Jordan is frequently meanspirited. He appears to make light of one teammate’s migraine and uses words like ‘dumbass,’ or more foul-mouthed epithets, to refer to others. He doles out postgame abuse as easily as high fives, complaining, ‘You couldn’t make a damn jump shot all night long.’ He seems to delight in embarrassing a teammate on camera.

One struggles to know whom to believe: the experts or your lying eyes.

According to the studies Mr. Sutton cites in his book, the problems with toxic workers range from the obvious to the subtle. Their belligerence creates costly distractions. Their treatment of co-workers increases turnover and absenteeism. When the demoralized colleagues do show up, they perform apathetically.”

Hey Scheiber, it’s very easy to decide who to believe, IF the question is professional success. Jordan took one of the worst franchises in the league and almost single-handedly turned it into a historic dynasty with six NBA championships. The ends justify the means. Professionally.

But personal success is an altogether different question, and I contend at least as important a one. The little bit of light the doc shined on Jordan’s personal life was telling. In particular, he didn’t have meaningful relationships with his teammates. They seemed largely a means to an end, championship rings, a historic legacy. Steve Kerr, who attributed it to his unrivaled fame, said Jordan lived separately from his teammates, but Kerr also acknowledged there was an “emotional” distance. The picture of Jordan sitting alone of the bus with headphones on spoke volumes.

The question that went unexamined is whether Jordan was too competitive for his own good OFF the court. Interpersonal success hinges on one’s ability to cooperate with others. Can someone as hyper-competitive as Jordan, who at one point admitted to “having a competition problem” throw a switch when the stadium lights go off?

We never hear from his first wife. Or his adult children in any meaningful way.

But we do hear from his teammates and competitors. Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview with Wright Thompson who has a piece out about Jordan’s family history. Talking about Jordan’s relationship with some of his security guards and staff, Thompson said he is intensely loyal, once you’re in his circle of friendship, you’re in it for life.

Tell that to Charles Barkley, who after criticizing Jordan for making some poor decisions as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was deemed persona non grata.* Formerly friends, they haven’t spoken since and Barkley doesn’t expect to reconcile with Jordan.

Fast forward from the bus. The enduring image of present day MJ is sitting alone in his mansion with his drink and cigar in hand. He’s considered by most the greatest basketball player of all time.** The GOAT. His net worth is $2b. And yet, it’s unclear how rich he is when it comes to meaningful friendships.

Through the imperfect, incomplete lens of the doc, Jordan doesn’t appear to have any regrets, and of course, every one gets to decide for themselves how to balance their work and non-work lives. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s living large not just professionally, but personally. Maybe he’s surrounded by people who know him well and who love him unconditionally and who he knows and loves back.

In which case, nevermind.

*Barkley wasn’t exactly making news.

** The increasingly tiresome GOAT debate is whether LeBron is Jordan’s equal. Three-point hysteria aside, I might start my team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier Than The Nonreligious

From Ruth Whippman in America the Anxious:

“Almost all the studies show that religious people tend to have a greater number of social ties and stronger and more supportive communities. When the studies control for the increased levels of social connection, the link between religion and happiness almost always disappears.”

This is my fav positive psychology book. The one I’d recommend to someone brand new to the subject. I dig Whippman’s skepticism, insights, journalistic bent, and British wit. Only complaint, she could use some working class friends.

Monday Assorted Links

1. Students’ grades determine where they eat lunch at Florida schools. While trying to process this, I was overcome by a strong desire to excise the peninsula along the Alabama-Georgia borders. Let it drift away I say.

2. Olympic marathon champ Jemima Sumgong banned four years for EPO. This is so common place, why doesn’t the Olympic Organizing Committee wait four years and distribute the awards right before the next game’s Opening Ceremony. And while we’re at it, let’s all agree to wait ten years to give wedding gifts. Make sure the relationship sticks before springing for that state-of-the-art toaster oven.

3. How to Get Entirely Tax-Free Retirement Income. An excellent explanation of why Health Savings Accounts rock.

4. When Your Shitty Health Insurance Doubles in Price.

“Remember, health insurance is not really health insurance. It’s just “large medical bill insurance” – a shaky precaution against having to pay for expensive procedures, so you can keep your investments instead of using them to pay the bills, perhaps eventually becoming poor enough that you are covered by public health insurance (Medicaid). A better name for it might be wealth insurance.”

5. Here’s why you may want to stop judging your emotions.

“. . . research from the University of California, Berkeley found that the pressure to feel upbeat can make you feel downbeat, while embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said senior author Iris Mauss.

At this point, researchers can only speculate on why accepting your joyless emotions can defuse them, like dark clouds passing swiftly in front of the sun and out of sight.

“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” Mauss said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”

Assigned Reading and Viewing

• You’re interested in adolescent mental health and like long-form, non-fiction journalism. The Silicon Valley Suicides.

• You wonder what it would be like to be a young Syrian woman who escapes from The Islamic State. ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish, and Escape.

• You dig athletic excellence and redemption stories. After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead. Mid-story, I wondered, has there ever been a more physically dominant athlete in any sport?

• This Thanksgiving you want to be more intentional about giving thanks. Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

• You’re thankful Adele is back. “Nannies talk very slow and very calm to try to make the world make sense.” Who knew?

• You’re grateful Adele is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Once a Week Write Down What You’re Most Thankful For

We tend to take the most positive aspects of our lives for granted—good health; family; friends; a roof over our heads; freedoms; or warm, sunny, weekend days in October. It’s especially important that family and friends feel truly appreciated, because when they feel unvalued, those all important relationships suffer.

If you don’t stop to count your blessings on occasion, you’ll probably succumb to negativity. My friend is right when he says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Curse the darkness with any regularity and people will avoid you. When that happens, negativity usually spirals downward.

University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions”. Her research team asks, what if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?

Here’s an interesting experiment of theirs. One set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness–but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore, or worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.*

While pondering this research, and writing this, I’ve been thinking about my mom. As is true for all octogenarians, her health isn’t what it used to be and my dad’s sudden death almost two decades ago was an understandable blow to her happiness. I can’t truly walk in her shoes, or understand why this author wants to die at age 75, but I’m confident even she would benefit from starting a gratitude journal.

Scratch that. Especially she. The more challenging one’s life, the more important it is to account for every last blessing. Starting a gratitude journal is an admission. An admission that gratitude doesn’t come naturally, it requires intentionality.

As always, I appreciate your reading.

* as described by Mark Joseph Stern

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

Maybe Our Most Perfect Drug

Lots of people are seeing therapists and taking meds to combat anxiety disorders and depression. Stacy Horn suggests a much less expensive alternative, join a choir. She explains:

. . . as science works to explain what every singer already knows, no matter where you fall on the voice suckage scale—sing. I know of no other activity that gives so much and is this eminently affordable and accessible: Just show up for choir practice. Singing might be our most perfect drug; the ultimate mood regulator, lowering rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while at the same time amplifying happiness and joy, with no discernible, unpleasant side effects. The nerds and the church people had it right.

In high school, following the lead of some close friends, I sang in a large Lutheran youth choir. We toured for two weeks each summer, wowing Lutheran congregations all over the fruited plains. One summer at Indiana University in Bloomington, we even won a large national competition. But, as any Lord’s Joyful alum will tell you, no thanks to me. When you look up “voice suckage” in the urban dictionary, you see my larynx. Little known fact. Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and The Sugarhill Gang started rapping in the late 70s so that I’d have an alternative to singing.

Horn earns my enduring affection with this confession:

One of my main goals in our weekly rehearsals is not being heard. Over the years I’ve become a master in the art of voice camouflage, perfecting a cunning combination of seat choice, head tilt, and volume.

As they liked to say on The Wire, I feel you!

My alternative drugs of choice, by which I mean social activities that help me maintain some semblance of mental health, are swimming, cycling, and running with friends.

The GalPal and I recently enjoyed catching up with old friends from the state that just decided to stop paying teachers extra for Masters degrees. One whom struggled with depression recently. Her most perfect drug? Caring for and riding a horse. Almost daily. At first glance, this activity isn’t as social as the others, but in fact, our friend always looks forward to seeing the same few horse owners at the medium-sized, community-based barn. A couple of times a week, after grooming and riding their horses, they cross the street to a golf course restaurant where they eat and visit. Her mental health in tact for another day.

Reduce anxiety and depression without therapy or meds. Follow Horn’s advice and join a community choir. Or follow my lead and swim, cycle, run, hike, or walk with another person. Or if you can afford it, horse around with friends. You feel me?

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Me at my last concert performance