Seizing The Moment

I have a series of posts that are all linked in some way in my head, and are all in various states of incompletion. I’m going to dive right in and start posting and hope that it comes together as I go along. Or maybe I’ll just confuse people.

Last month, at the Yankees game, my non-baseball-fan coworker asked me why I was booing A-Rod so much. I had to stop and think about it – it was just one of those things I had internalized. A couple weeks later, ran an article asking the same question: Why do we hate this guy? My answer was partly that he had sold out for the money (for those of you who don’t follow sports, he broke into the major leagues with Seattle, and then left them when he got the Rangers to sign him to a 10 year, $250 million contract), and partly because he never performed in the clutch (which is unforgivable given his contract). He’s immensely talented, he piles up huge numbers, but when the game is on the line, he doesn’t strike fear into his opponents. He never rises to the occasion unlike his teammate, Derek Jeter, who always seems to be in the right place (the 2001 flip being a great example).

Examples abound throughout sports. Peyton Manning is like A-Rod, putting up the stats when it doesn’t matter and choking when it does. Tom Brady is like Jeter, unflappable in the clutch. In golf, Mickelson quails, Tiger Woods steps up (this past weekend, Tiger won his 12th major championship – after the third round, he was tied for the lead, and he broke away from the pack with a birdie on the first hole of the final round and ended up winning by five strokes). In the NBA, Karl Malone was the choker, Michael Jordan the legendary closer. Jordan was unbelievable in the clutch. Everyone in the stadium (heck, everyone in the world) knew who the ball was going to, he’d get it, and still manage to will his way to a score.

I think such feats are tremendously inspiring. There’s something about watching somebody who doesn’t just survive, but excels, when the pressure is at its highest. They have a sense of The Moment, when their legacy will be defined, which will inspire stories for years afterwards. I still have a newspaper picture of Jordan rising up for a jump shot in his last playoffs series against the Jazz, which I captioned with “I believe I can fly”, the tagline for one of his commercials at the time.

And such feats are not confined to the area of sports. In real life, there are those who go out and perform, who achieve, who step up, who seize The Moment and make it theirs. And then there are those who let life pass them by, who always let The Moment slip through their fingers. I’ve been fortunate to know a bunch of people in the former category. They are inspiring, as well as intimidating. They give me hope that such feats are possible, even as they make me feel inadequate for not having achieved them myself.

I’ve been thinking about what separates those who seize The Moment from those who don’t. One of the differences is that those who do want the responsibility of those moments. Jordan rarely let anybody else take the final shot. But when he took it and missed, he didn’t blame anybody but himself. He wanted the glory, and he accepted the responsibility that came with it.

Peyton Manning is the opposite – he wants the glory of the victory, but he doesn’t want the responsibility. Whenever the Colts lose, it’s never his fault in his mind; he blames his linemen for not providing good protection, his receivers for dropping the ball, or his coaches for the game plan. For instance, I’ll quote from an article after last year’s playoff loss:

“I’m looking for a safe word here, I don’t want to be a bad teammate,” Manning said when asked about Indianapolis’ blown blocking assignments.

Way to stand up for your teammates there, Peyton.

A-Rod is the same way – he doesn’t want the responsibility for the team’s losses, and thus always seems tentative in the clutch. And I think there is something karmic here. Nobody wants to be on a team with a guy who’s only focused on himself (I’m saying guy here because, honestly, guys are more likely to be individually focused). We like teammates who look out for us, who cover for us, who make us better. We’ll put up with teammates who are individually brilliant because they do their job well, but we always know in the back of our mind that they’d desert us if it came down to us or them. Successful teams are those where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When individuals consider themselves to be more important than the team, the team suffers. And because they don’t trust their teammates, they suffer karmically and never achieve as much as they could otherwise.

Jordan actually provides a great example of this in the evolution of his career. At the beginning of his career, he was the individual superstar, scoring lots of points and piling up the accolades; in the playoffs in his second season, he scored 63 points against the Celtics prompting Larry Bird to comment afterwards that “I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Of course, people remember the quote and forget that the Bulls lost that game. It wasn’t until years later that Jordan realized that despite his amazing talent, he could not win without his teammates. Once he figured that out, he went on to become the greatest basketball player of all time. And, in fact, the codicil to his career, where he unretired and played two more years with the Washington Wizards, only serves to reinforce the point; by that point, it was more about him than his team, and it showed in the results.

Why am I rambling on about sports and teams and taking responsibility and seizing The Moment? I think there are parallels to management and life somewhere in here. I’ll start to get into that tomorrow.

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