On Persistence and Failure

michael jordanWhy do we listen to celebrities? They have little to say about ordinary lives. Here is a quote from the great basketball player, Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

His point seems to be that persistence in the face of failure is the key to success. Of course, he is right. But his own case is not an example of such persistence. Jordan was enormously talented. He played a difficult sport against stiff competition and he often failed. But within all that failure are notable and persistent successes. Failure doesn’t motivate, success does. Persistence greased by the remarkable achievements he enjoyed throughout his life is no great shakes.

I suspect Jordan has in mind moments when he used failure as a goad to greater effort and concentration. Great athletes experience failure as a visceral insult to their status. It eats at them steeling their resolve to do better. But that use of failure to motivate presupposes prior success. Only the great or the deluded can view failure as an affront to their status.

If there is a virtue to which he points, perhaps it is that we should not allow failure to darken success. We should not over-react to failure. But that is much easier when you have the day-to-day success on the court that he enjoyed throughout his life. Would he have persisted in the game of basketball if he had never had success?

The value of persistence is more readily displayed in people who repeatedly fail with no victories to savor. An athlete who trains relentlessly but never qualifies for the Olympics. A novelist with several completed manuscripts in their drawer and no book contract. A conscientious mother who steadfastly supports her wayward son. These failures reveal their commitment to an activity with intrinsic value in which there are internal rewards that do not require the certification of recognition or financial success.

It’s a shame that in our fascination with celebrity we overlook these more genuine achievements.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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