Over the last 10 days or so, a truly remarkable success story has emerged involving a young Harvard graduate with an economics degree named Jeremy. It is a remarkable and largely unexpected success story with lessons that you can apply to your life and career. Let me explain.
In most fields being a Harvard grad is the ultimate credential. This is true in medicine, academia, business, law, and politics (just ask President Obama).
BUT, there's one field where a Harvard degree isn't a prestigious credential, in fact it's a total liability... and that profession is playing professional basketball in the NBA.
I'm of course speaking about Jeremy Lin. Ten days ago, Jeremy was a "nobody." Today, roughly 1 billion people around the world know who he is and what he has done. This morning, President Obama was talking about him on his helicopter and called him "impressive."
His story is all over the newspapers in New York City. He is on all the major news websites across the U.S... and as of a few days ago, across Asia and the rest of the world.
His seemingly unlikely road to insane success from the most unlikely of places has been called "Linsanity." His coaches call him "Linderella" (a play on the childhood story "Cinderella").
So what happened? How did he get here? And what can you learn from him to apply to your life and career?
Let me address these questions.
In the last 6 games or so, Jeremy has led his team, the New York Knicks, to 6 straight wins from a team that most New Yorkers assumed would just lose the rest of the season. During these 6 games, he has posted a remarkable statistical performance -- very close to being the leading scorer in the NBA.
What is remarkable about this success is that these are for all practical purposes his FIRST 6 games of playing in NBA as a starter.
When you compare performance in the first 6 games on a NBA player's career, he has outperformed every other player in the history of the modern NBA - including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and every legend you can think of.
When you look at winning (or "Linning" as the media prefers to say) streaks of any player who has had a 6-game performance streak like this at ANY point in their career, there are only about a dozen players in history who have played at this high a level for 6 games in a row. At the top of the list are "legends" like Michael Jordan.
What makes this story all the more remarkable is the level of adversity he faced in getting here.
First, as his last name suggests, Jeremy is an Asian-American (Chinese-American or Taiwanese-American, depending on whose politics you prefer).
Despite outstanding performance in high school (including a California state championship), he was unable to get a basketball scholarship at ANY university. As a "fallback," he applied to and got into Harvard as a student.
When he graduated from Harvard, he really wanted to play in the NBA. Even though he was statistically the 2nd highest performing player in his position, he was turned down by EVERY NBA team during the draft (where the top new college grads are recruited).
At every step of the way, his success was dismissed as a fluke. At Harvard, he posted good numbers presumably because he didn't play any elite teams. BUT, if you look at the statistical record, his performance metrics actually IMPROVED in the 3 games when played against elite teams. But nobody noticed because it just did not seem possible that a short, slow, Asian kid from Harvard could possibly be that good.
During college, in summer play in front of scouts and the media, he played head to head against the #1 player in college basketball in his position -- and beat him. But again, nobody took notice... assumed it was a fluke... after all, a short, slow Asian kid couldn't possibly be that good.
In the NBA, he fought and scrapped his way onto a NBA team -- and then got fired. He scrapped his way onto another team... and then got fired again. And finally, he scrapped his way onto the New York Knicks, and was likely a few days away from being fired when something unusual happened.
The Knicks' elite players had been injured, and another had a death in the family. In short, all the "good players" were unable to play, and as the player ranked "last" on the team, the coach got so desperate he decided to (for the first time in his career) let Jeremy play the game of basketball.
... and Lin FINALLY got the opportunity he had spent his ENTIRE life preparing for, and he TOOK ADVANTAGE of it.
Some people in the media are calling the last 10 days possibly the greatest "underdog" success story in sports HISTORY.
So how did he become the seemingly most unlikely of heroes?
As a Chinese-American, I have been following the story for the last few days. I've been reading the many articles about him, his family and his life. And through that, I've pieced together a composite view of his path to success and extracted the key lessons that are widely applicable to you.
Let me elaborate.
Career Lessons from Linderella (aka Jeremy Lin)
1) 10,000 hours - In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" (which I highly recommend), he demonstrates how exceptional success in a variety of fields is often attributed to a set of circumstances that allows someone to achieve the requisite number of hours of experience to become exceptionally good at something.
Gladwell identified this threshold as 10,000 hours of practice.
And when you look at Lin's life history, he was likely one of the few Asian-Americans who logged not only 10,000 hours, but by my rough estimates quite possibly 20,000 hours of practice.
As a very young child, his father, who had a PhD in engineering, was a huge basketball fan. He taught Jeremy all the major basketball moves of the NBA stars from the 1980s.
As Lin got older, when his friends went out to have fun, he opted to go the gym and practice. His life was to study, go to church and play basketball. And he did.
To be sure, Lin clearly has raw talent (but then again so do a lot of people), one key difference is that even though he is only 24 years old, he has essentially been practicing HARD at the sport of basketball for the last 20 years. Yes, he's a 20-year "veteran," so to speak.
2) Responding to "Market Feedback" - When he initially made it to the NBA, the feedback he got was that while he was good at driving to the basket (scoring from positions close to the basket), his midrange and outside game (shooting from further away) was not nearly as good.
The problem that coaches anticipated was that if a defender knew you could only score from up close, then you became extremely predictable. Defenders could hang back close to the basket, let Lin come to them, and block his shots given his relatively short (by NBA standards) height.
What few people realize is in the most recent offseason, when other players traveled and did fun things, Lin spent hours upon hours in the gym... turning his weakness areas into what are now clearly exceptional strengths.
If you watch his last 6 games of play, what you notice is how multi-faceted his game is. He can shoot from close to the basket, from far away... he can shoot under pressure... and when he doesn't have a good shot, he can see which of his teammates has a better shot and get that player the ball.
If a defender plays close to Lin preventing him from shooting, Lin is quick enough to drive closer to the basket and get a closer shot.
If a defender backs away from Lin to prevent him from getting the shot that's close to the basket, Lin (today) can hit the outside shot remarkably well.
When opposing teams put two defenders on Lin, which by definition means one of Lin's teammates is left unguarded, Lin can get the unguarded teammate the ball and that player can score.
In short, today he has developed what was already a statistically strong set of skills and made them even better. He did this when nobody else thought he could.
3) Never Quit - Through it all, Jeremy Lin never quit. He's been called racial slurs on the court by opposing players and fans. He's been overlooked, ignored, dismissed... and yet he kept showing up for practice each and every day... and every day he kept trying, even though everybody else told him to not bother.
4) Peace of Mind - During his time in the NBA prior to his most recent Linderella run, he had not played well when he had a few brief moments to play. In hindsight, he has implied that he was so stressed out about trying to do well that he was "trying too hard."
Instead of having fun and focusing on playing well, he was in the back of his mind spending too much time and energy "talking to himself" (my words) about what his performance means (such as proving his critics right)... that he got distracted from just playing the game of basketball -- something he has 20,000 hours of experience in doing.
At some point, he decided to just let go of that anxiety. He credits his faith in God for helping him to do this.
Regardless of your faith, what's worth noting is how Jeremy Lin reached a point where he was "okay" if he didn't make it in the NBA. He had done his part, accepted that he had done his part, and to some extent, let go of the outcome.
If he didn't make it in the NBA, it would be okay, because he had spent 20 years spending every spare hour in practice doing everything humanly possible to be the best he could be, and if that STILL was not enough, it's okay for two reasons: a) there was nothing else within his control that he could do; and b) he realized he still had the things that were truly important to him (in his case, his family, his friends and his faith).
He finally achieved a mental state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state of "Flow." Sports fans call this state being "in the zone" -- where a player stops thinking, stops any self doubts, and just unconsciously plays... letting all those decades of experience shine through without letting one's self get in the way.
When I watch him play, he looks a) relaxed, and b) like he's having fun. The other night, he took and made the game-winning shot with 0.5 seconds left in the game. It looked like he was just casually practicing at the gym... one of those 20,000 hours... where all young kids imagine themselves hitting the game-winning shot.
And all he did was ignore the fact that 20,000 people were watching him live -- standing while screaming their heads off, forget that much of New York City was on pins and needles waiting to see if his team would win, and forget that 1+ billion people in China who have been waiting for a Chinese sports hero to emerge wanted him to win... he ignored ALL of that, and it looked like he was just hitting a shot that in over 20,000 hours of practice he has probably attempted 250,000 times... and he just did it again for the 250,001st time.
So what are the key takeaways for you?
1) 10,000 hours -- extreme success requires a certain level of practice. This is true both in the case interview as well as managing your career over the long term. Ten thousand hours is a LOT of hours (it's full time for 5 years). It is very much worth deliberately CHOOSING what you're passionate about, because otherwise there's a very high likelihood you'll quit well short of the 10,000-hour mark.
I see too many people go down career paths that were easily accessible, socially acceptable to them, but quite often these were not necessarily paths that got them very excited.
If you're not excited, it is very hard to make the extra effort that gets you to and beyond the 10,000-hour mark.
What I find interesting about Jeremy Lin is that out of every Asian-American basketball player in the world, it's entirely possible that he's logged more hours of practice than anyone else.
Incidentally, Michael Jordan -- arguable the greatest basketball player in history -- was ALSO a player who logged more hours of practice than any of his teammates at every level of play. Jordan showed up first for practice and was the last to leave.
Hmmm.... interesting (but not surprising), isn't it?
2) Adapting to "Market Feedback" - I always tell my clients and students, be stubborn on your goals, but be FLEXIBLE on how you get there. If you continually learn from mistakes and adapt based on new information, you continually get better.
In your own career, you should be paying attention to market feedback. What are people saying? What are your legitimate areas for improvement? What are the strengths you possess that people unanimously agree are your exceptional strengths?
This is especially critical when you combine this with the next key lesson.
3) Never Quit -- If you work like a dog (for 10,000+ hours), continually improve, and never quit, EVENTUALLY you will succeed. It might not be a fast success, but it is with that level of dedication a likely success (eventually).
4) Peace of Mind - A little stress heightens the senses and accelerates brain activity. TOO MUCH anxiety backfires. Here is a BIG SECRET about this topic that's worth writing down.
STRESS = FEAR
Why does one stress out about trying to catch an airplane? Because one is AFRAID of the consequences and hassle of missing it.
Why does one stress out about getting fired from a job? Because one is AFRAID of what others would say, what it would mean about one's worth, how one would pay ones bills, etc...
When you ACCEPT your worst case scenario, it REMOVES the fear... and the stress disappears as well.
In Laurence Gonzalez's book "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why" (also highly recommended), he analyzes why some people survive falling out of an airplane at 20,000 feet without a parachute and live, fall down an ice canyon with a broken leg, no supplies and crawl out alive a week later, and why others don't.
What is absolutely FASCINATING about the mindset of the extreme survivors profiled in this book is how within 5 minutes of the major incident, every person who would eventually survive immediately acknowledged that most likely they would die, AND (this is the important part) decided it was OKAY if they did.
Once they got that out of the way, they were no longer afraid to die, no longer stressed out about it, and (this part's important too) could devote ALL of their resources towards figuring out how to survive.
THE key to having peace of mind / being "in the zone" of performance is to in advance accept your potential worst case scenario, and then stop being afraid of it.
For Lin, quite ironically, he played his best when finally -- at some level -- he cared the least. I don't think this is an accident.
It's also evident in how Lin has responded to the enormous media frenzy and attention surrounding him. For a new player, he's largely unfazed by it all. If his "Linning" streak ends in a few days, he's okay with it. If he becomes one of the greatest legends in basketball history, he's okay with it. Once he stopped being afraid, he could actually play for the love of the game called basketball.
In addition to these four lessons, let me add one more that's my observation.
5) You Can Not Control When the "Market" Rewards You for Your Hard Work - One of my business mentors once said to me,
"In business, you must focus on doing the right things day-in, day-out. You can not control when the market will reward you for this work, but if you do the right things every day, you will eventually be rewarded."
Lin spent 20,000 hours doing the right thing, and eventually the "market" rewarded him for it (about 10 days ago!).
In your case, you must focus on the career path YOU want (not what your spouse, friends, family members, peers want) and then do what is necessary to be successful in that path. If you stick to that formula, learn from your mistakes, and never quit, you will be eventually be rewarded. And it sure helps if you really like what you do because THAT's what gets you through the inevitable rough patches.
And what makes Jeremy Lin SO exciting to both watch and follow is that he did EXACTLY everything that needed to be done over the last 20 years, and FINALLY the success he spent 20 years earning is being recognized.
And for anyone who has every felt slighted, overlooked, dismissed, not believed in by others (which is basically me and everyone I know), it is so easy for us to identify with him in some way and rewarding to see him get the public recognition he spent a lifetime earning.