The Tao of Kobe: Musings On Life, Ambition, and Becoming Great

For most of my teenage years and 20-something years, I’ve “sports hated” Kobe Bryant.

You know how it is. You choose to see the negatives of a person and become blind to the positives. And then something happens and you are able to see the full picture of that person.

When this happens, you usually find that there is a lot you can learn from them. Initial resistance is often a sign that there is something important for you if you lean into it a bit.

I just watched the most recent documentary on Kobe Bryant called “Muse” and it completely changed my opinion on the man. There’s a lot in the 90 minute film. My goal is to pass the key things I learned on to you here.

It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.

 

That’s the name of a (great) book I bought in college. I read it back when I bought it. I liked it. It felt like the truth. But I wasn’t ready for the full impact of its lessons back then.

The other weekend in Las Vegas, my hotel room had a small collection of books on the coffee table. One of them was that book. And this past week the lessons from that book have been popping up all over my life.

Kobe had some of the most poignant things to say about the topics of Life, Ambition, and Becoming Great.

Here’s what I learned from Mr. Bryant….

AMBITION

If you don’t have a goal, it’s difficult to score. You must have a goal and you must develop a complete disregard for where your abilities end.

In fact, choose a goal far beyond what you thought you were capable of accomplishing yesterday and make it your business to achieve it.

Kobe’s goal was “to be able to sit at the same lunch table as my muses. Michael [Jordan]. Magic [Johnson]. I wanted to be able to sit at the same table as them and belong there.”

No matter how talented or well-regarded a young athlete is, it certainly is ambitious to make your goal to be considered right there with a small handful of the best to ever play the game.

But Kobe’s view is that “when we say ‘this cannot be accomplished, this cannot be done’ – – we are shortchanging ourselves”.

If you want to be great, there’s a choice you have to make. We can all be masters at our craft but you have to make a choice. There are some sacrifices that come with making that decision and many people wind up opting to not make those sacrifices.

If you have truly made the commitment to being the best at the expense of other things, you have an instant advantage on your competition who have not made that same commitment (or at least not at the same level).

I don’t expect to have my jersey hanging from the rafters of the United Center in this lifetime, but I can make my goal to be able to sit at the table with some of the best marketers and conversion optimizers of all time. To be able to sit (and belong) with my muses.

And you can do the same.

If you want to be the best at your particular field, get serious about your commitment. Expand your imagination for what you are capable of and expand your courage in going after it.

Seek out those who already are or at some time were at the mountaintop. For Kobe, he wanted to learn how to be the best basketball player in the world. “And if I want to learn that, I have to learn from the best. My place to study is from the best.”

When your goal is bigger and more important to you than your fear of rejection or your need for approval from others, you won’t think about those things. They’ll receive less and less attention, energy, and awareness to the point where they’ve almost disappeared completely. Your fears can’t get in the way when your goal is that much more important.

LEADERSHIP & PERCEPTION

Make no mistake about it, perception is often reality. How others perceive you has a massive impact on your ability to influence them.

Whether you are trying to create a partnership, make a sale, get a date, change their behavior, or something else – – you will be ineffective unless the other person perceives you as able to make their life better through being influenced by you.

For a long time, there was no distinction between my “personal self” and my “professional self”. I operated and carried myself the same way amongst friends & family as I did potential clients, clients, & employees.

And I got feedback (direct and indirect) that told me I wasn’t taking enough control, I wasn’t leading effectively, and more.

The solution was to separate my “personal self” from my “professional self”. What would the most effective leader, the most effective CEO of Conversion For Good look like? How could I become that in professional situations (while still “being me”)?

Kobe faced something similar. Here’s his quote:

“I had to separate myself. I created “The Black Mamba”. Kobe has to deal with personal challenges and The Black Mamba steps on the court and does what he does. And the Mamba just says ‘Fuck everyone. I’m destroying everybody that steps on the court.’”

Early in Kobe’s career, the Lakers were Shaq’s team. They won 3 championships but a rift between Kobe and Shaq led to the Lakers trading Shaquille.

The Lakers then had 3 difficult seasons where they either missed the playoffs or barely make the playoffs & got eliminated in the first round. Kobe was the center of trade rumors for chunks of those seasons. Kobe was called a “bad teammate”, an “ineffective leader”, and a player who wasn’t able to make the people around him better.

But once Kobe fully “embraced the Mamba”, he was able to properly influence those around him. Kobe (or The Mamba) decided:

“This team is going to have my personality, have my grit, have my fight, they’re going to have my will, my competitive spirit. When we step on that basketball court, you’re not facing me and just my spirit – – you’re facing 12 of those.”

The next three seasons for the Lakers saw 3 trips to the finals and 2 more championship trophies.

(My note: The addition of Pau Gasol, the return of Phil Jackson as coach, and key injuries to the Boston Celtics helped the Lakers’ return to glory)

It started with Kobe becoming the leader he needed to be in order to “be the guy” on teams capable of winning the championship. It started with Kobe deciding within himself to be that & committing to it. When you do that, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) things shifted that alter others’ perception of you.

As Kobe said:

“The most important thing is that you’ve gotta put everyone on notice that you’re here and you’re for real. You’re not a player who’s just going to come and go. I’m not a player who’s just going to make an All Star team one or two times. I’m going to become an all-time great.

Once I made that commitment and said, ‘I’m going to be one of the greatest ever’, then the game became everything for me….when you make a choice and say ‘come hell or high water, I’m going to be this’, then you should not be surprised when you are that.

It should not be something that feels intoxicating or out of character because you’ve seen this moment for so long. It’s been playing in your mind for so long that when the moment comes, it’s like ‘of course it’s here because it’s been in here [points to heart] the whole time, it’s been in here [points to head] the whole time.”

THE FUEL FOR GREATNESS

Make no mistake about it – – extraordinary outcomes usually require extraordinary drive, focus, commitment, effort, and grit.

If it was easy to be great, there would be no such thing as greatness. Greatness would be average if that was the case.

Along your journey, you may feel discouraged at times. You may even feel broken, defeated, or hopeless. I know I’ve battled several bouts of depression where I felt that I was “destined to fail”….days where I could barely pry myself out of bed because I didn’t believe in myself or when I was so drained from previous days efforts I felt like I had no energy.

You must be able to fuel the consistency that greatness requires. Your fuel can come from many different sources & the most effective fuel for you often will have unique, personal components to it.

But knowing what fueled others to their greatness can be informative.

The “Muse” documentary started with this quote:

“There is power in understanding the journey of others to help create your own.”

There were a couple things about what fueled Kobe that really struck me.

One was his willingness to tap into “the dark side”. We all have one. Even the sweetest, kindest person you’ve ever met. Even your grandmother has one.

But many of us (myself included) are afraid to let it show.

Maybe it was something they did as a child where rage overtook them and they did something they felt terrible about after – – and decided from then on they wouldn’t let “dark” emotions ever take control over them again.

Maybe they witnessed the dark side of another inflict great harm (physical or psychological) onto another – – and decided they would never put themselves in a position to do that to another person.

But you have the ability to harness and channel the “dark energy” in a conscious way that fuels creation rather than destruction.

In “Muse”, Kobe said:

“For me it is that ferocity or that anger or that rage and I carry that with me.

Using the darker emotions – the anger, the resentment, the frustration….sadness….using that as a weapon. Using that as a form of offense.

It’s a scar, it’s a pain, it’s a bad memory. Most people are afraid to tap into that side of them but it’s such a powerful thing.

Once they own it themselves, then the sky is the limit because they are going to drive themselves and pull from who they are – – all of their life experiences and the things that have motivated them. Embrace the villain nature that’s in all of us and unleash.”

Kobe described how he used the external chaos of his rape trial to fuel him internally to train harder and play with greater intensity:

“Playing with rage was new to me, but I fucking loved it…..I had all this pent up frustration I needed to let out. It was an avalanche man. There was nothing that was going to get in the way, nothing that was going to stop me.

It’s the battle that’s going on within me that I’m carrying with me to the competition. So it’s not about you, it’s not about anybody else because you’re not me making me go. I’m driving this thing and man you just happen to be a person in the way who may get demolished in the process.”

One thing that I’ve seen help fuel many mission driven entrepreneurs is that they’re working to build something that benefits people outside of the organization.

Maybe they’re building schools, donating clothes & food to those in need, providing medical aid, planting trees, or using their business as the engine to help solve an issue that is important to them.

When you’re working towards something that is bigger than yourself, you can be propelled forward by knowing there are others out there whose lives could be improved (or even saved) by your efforts. As Kobe put it:

“You fall. You hit a bump in the road. You get back up. You get back after it. That’s what you do….You have to be brave. If not for yourself, then for those who need you.”

We touched on the “dark side” earlier and how it can motivate you. There is also the “light side” which has immense power behind it as well.

It’s cliché to say “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life” but there’s often truth behind things that get said so often. Love for what you do, what you’re building towards, and what you’re striving for can mean (for yourself, for your family, for your community, and for the world) can be an endless fuel source so long as you stay connected to it.

Kobe: “I love what I do it. It’s as simple as that. I get so much enjoyment from it.”

Even if right now you don’t love what you do. Maybe your business is struggling or your job isn’t fulfilling or you don’t care for your boss. What can you love about it? What skills or experiences or rewards does it provide you that you can feel appreciation and enjoyment from?

Realize that the job or the business or the client that is in front of you right is the one. Meaning that it is a waste to yearn for something you had in the past or to half-ass the one in front of you now.

It’s easy to say that your current job or project or client isn’t “perfect” for whatever reason and that you’re going to “just deal with, get it over with, and make the next one good”.

But “perfect” opportunities come more often to those who have earned them through doing great work. The thing in front of you now is the one. If you make it the best you possibly can, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your all.

And you’ll earn a reputation for doing good work (which will attract “bigger and better” things).

Another thing that can fuel you is your past. Things that happened in the past are solid but the meaning you assign to those things are fluid. While you can’t change the past, you can turn past experiences from limiting to empowering.

You can turn failures and rejections into learning experiences and opportunities to improve. You can use painful moments as motivators to do whatever it takes to not feel that pain again. You can use successes as “appetizers” for the bigger wins you have lined up through your goals.

For athletes, injuries happen. Injuries can end a season or even a career. They can ruin a team’s championship aspirations. They can prevent players from reaching their peak potential.

For that last one, sometimes the injury is too much for the player to overcome physically (a leg injury that permanently makes unable to run as fast, jump as high, etc) and sometimes the injury is too much for the player to overcome mentally (in the back of their mind they are afraid of re-injuring themselves, the recovery & rehabilitation process to get back to their previous condition is too daunting, etc).

Some players look at the scars from their surgery and see the thing that stole their prime. Other players look at their scars and see something closer to what Kobe sees:

“As I sit here now and I take off my shoes and look down at my scar, I see beauty in that. Because I see all the hard work, the sacrifices. I see that journey that it took to get back to this point of being healthy. I see the beauty in that struggle. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

The injury happened to the athlete. That can’t change. But the meaning they attach to it after the fact can. Which one is more empowering?

If you can regularly tap into the pleasure of reaching your goals and attaining greatness (however that looks for you), you will be pulled towards them. Similarly, if you can tap into the pain of not reaching your goals, you will be motivated to do whatever you can to not have to actually live that pain.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Kobe:

“My brain cannot…it cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and tell myself ‘You’re a failure’…I think that’s worse…that’s almost worse than death.”

1 reply
  1. Frank
    Frank says:

    Write more, that’s all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point. You clearly know what you’re talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your blog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

    Reply

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