The Mythology of Failure
There’s an entire cottage industry devoted to highlighting the failures some of our society’s most successful have undergone on their road to success:
- Michael Jordan – didn’t make the varsity basketball team his sophomore year of college.
- Bill Clinton – lost his run for Congress.
- Oprah Winfrey – fired from her job as a co-anchor at a Baltimore television news station in less than a year.
- JK Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishing houses before it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury.
- Steven Spielberg – rejected by USC’s Film School – three times.
In recent years these stories have become so popular that blogger James Altucher pokes fun at them, deeming them “failure porn.”
And yet, these stories are famous in part because they offer hope to us mere mortals who will never become President, let alone a billionaire – hope that with enough perseverance and luck, we too can reach the pinnacle of success.
It also demystifies our heroes – reminds us that in the end, they are like us – human.
But we also tend to mythologize “grit” – the ability to bounce back from adversity to achieve recognition and acclaim.
“When you’re going through Hell, keep going” – Winston Churchill (attributed)
We believe in grit and perseverance because we have to – without hope that our efforts will pay off, it becomes all too easy to quit.
But the other night, I came across a documentary on NBA star Jeremy Lin on Netflix called Linsanity and I was riveted by the story.
If you follow basketball and/or all things New York City, you probably recall that Jeremy Lin came out of seemingly nowhere in the summer of 2012 to lead the NY Knicks to winning the Atlantic Division title.
Jeremy Lin became an overnight sensation because he was different. He was:
- A short-for-basketball-6’3”
- A Harvard graduate
And yet, when he burst onto the floor on Feb. 4 he scored 25 points and had seven assists, leading the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the New Jersey Nets. In his next three games he would score 23 points, 28 points, and 38 points – in that game outscoring the LA Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.” – U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren
But what I didn’t know during that 2012 season was just how much adversity Lin had faced on his road to the pros.
For one, his “overnight success” with the Knicks in 2012 was actually is third year in the NBA.
This was someone who suffered from the reverse of what Malcolm Gladwell deemed “Warren Harding error.”
(Aside: In his book Blink, Gladwell discusses how Warren Harding was essentially selected by Republican bosses to be groomed to become President because he was tall, charismatic and “looked Presidential.” In actuality, he is now widely considered one of the worst Presidents.)
In Lin’s case, he simply didn’t look like an NBA player, because he was
- Asian, and
- small (by NBA standards)
Racism aside, the key here is the extraordinary amount of effort Lin went through to finally break through to the ranks of NBA starter.
Top 5 in California – Zero Division I offers
High School – Despite leading Palo Alto High School to win the California Interscholastic Federation Division II state title, Lin wasn’t recruited at the Division I level.
Ultimately, Lin landed at Harvard because it was one of only two schools that guaranteed him a spot on its basketball team. By the time he graduated, he had become the first player in the history of the Ivy League to score at least 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (487), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225).
Despite his record-breaking stats, Lin wasn’t selected in the 2010 NBA draft.
While reams have been written about racial bias – conscious or unconscious – that he “would have been selected with his record if he were black,” etc. the fact remains he just didn’t fit the mold of an NBA point guard: He was Asian, he was small, he came out of Harvard.
It was only after Lin’s stellar performance in the NBA summer league for the Dallas Mavericks that he ultimately was signed to his hometown team, the Golden State Warriors.
In so doing, Lin became the first American professional basketball player of Chinese or Tawainese descent.
Lin struggled his first year with the Warriors, and he was sent down to the D-League, the NBA equivalent of the minors, three times during that season.
Something that Linsanity makes clear is the D-League can be a purgatory for players, as the emphasis is entirely on individual performance over team play.
Rather than playing traditional basketball, Lin found himself instead having to showboat against much larger and aggressive players. While he ultimately succeeded there, the experience so pushed him to the limit that he nearly quit.
With the 2011 season delayed due to an NBA lock-out, Lin played that fall in China. When the season lock-out ended in December, The Warriors waived Lin on the first day of training camp. He then played two weeks for the Houston Rockets before being waived by them in the preseason. The New York Knicks picked up Lin on Dec. 27, and he was soon sent back down to their D-League team, the Erie BayHawks.
It wasn’t until February of 2012, his second year in the NBA, that Lin struck his “overnight success,” while playing for the New York Knicks. He scored more than 20 points and seven assists in his first five career starts.
He ended the season having averaged 18.5 points, 7.7 assists, and 2.0 steals per game with 44.9 percent shooting from the field in just 26 games.
And yet – with his resounding success, as Linsanity swept the nation and led to sell-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks ended up losing Lin the next year to the Houston Rockets, who had made a stronger offer. Two years later, Lin went to the Los Angeles Lakers, and a year later he went to the Charlotte Hornets.
Today, Jeremey Lin is back in the spotlight, as – now a proven veteran – he will soon test his free agency on the open market.
Whether he ends up back with the Hornets, or posts a triumphant return to the New York Knicks (who already have three point guards) or another team remains to be seen.
But Lin’s journey so far is one of the strongest testaments to perseverance and faith I’ve seen in modern sports.
Many people came to know Jeremy Lin’s name during that amazing mid-season entrance with the New York Knicks in 2012.
But few saw his years of struggle in the shadows that enabled that public success.
There’s no such thing as an overnight success.
Nor does reaching that success mean you can relax. That Lin could achieve such immediate acclaim with the Knicks, only to be traded the next season (and play for three teams over the next four seasons), shows how competitive and/or fickle the sports Gods are.
Do the work. Don’t give up.
And maybe one day you too can be recognized as an “overnight success.”