IIt’s 2:00 a.m.
I’m 21 today, but instead of going out drinking, I do what I always do.
I slide out my apartment on Franklin street and dribble my basketball to the court. The leather ball slides through my legs and whips behind my back, over and over. The night air in Kent, Ohio is brisk, but the streetlights buzz above me and I am flickering with joy. This is my sanctuary — the court, the lines, the ball in my hands. I listen to the air buzzing around me, to the crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers sawing their wings, to the stars shimmering above me, and the milky way smeared across a canvas of black.
The night is mine, the world is mine. This is my mountain.
I control my destiny for this moment, to be here, and breathe in this air and do what I love. I go to work. Sweat. I shoot hundreds of shots. Maybe a thousand. From the right wing. Left. Top of the key. This game isn’t supposed to pay me, to feed me, to put a house over my head, but it could.
For the first time, it could.
For the first time, I apprehend how much energy and passion I have put into the game, and what it is about to give me back.
The NBA waits for me to ascend to its summit. The game is about to give back to me what I’ve put in.
A few years later, I get cut from my second NBA team and the ascent, it almost kills me. I realize the climb to the top, it almost makes me quit the game I love.
It takes away my happiness, my passion, and my purpose. And the thing about many successful, ambitious people is they want to get to the top of their mountain, which means they will do whatever it takes to get there. This includes ruining their own personal growth as a happy, self-aware, positive, and emotionally intelligent human.
This narrow-sighted approach to living can hurt your life when you are always blinded by the summit.
This lack of self-awareness while you climb to the top of your mountain can cause huge amounts of pain, suffering, and relationship problems as it will devour even the most positive of humans.
The very thing you want, the goal, the dream, the mountain you want to summit, well, it may kill you because of your unwavering focus, perpetual work rate, and eternal obsession of getting to the end result at all costs.
Startups, entrepreneurs, parents, partners, and ambitious minds should think about what chasing their end result at all costs will do to them. A self-aware approach to dream building and goal setting should be available to even the most ambitious of men and women.
That starts within, it starts with asking the question.
What happens if my dream doesn’t happen?
How do we still remain happy, while striving for excellence and success, yet still climbing the mountain we love?
Here is my best answer (as of 12:08 a.m. a few days after turning 39):
Happy and successful humans do what most people will not do; they define their own success, then practice self-awareness (daily) while they start climbing the mountains they value the most. Their relationships and lives are built on personal growth, not on the end result.
In 2002, after my senior year at Kent State ended, I tried to get to the top of my mountain — the NBA. It was the first time I had been flown to an NBA tryout. The Atlanta Hawks brought me in and I worked out with a few obscure names I had never heard (just like me). The New York Knicks. The Phoenix Suns.
I mean, I had played in the Elite Eight, garnered NCAA All-Regional Tournament honors and they paid for me to fly to their city in a 10-ton metal bird and shoot a basketball through a metal rim.
Every part of me was tied to playing in the NBA.
Do you know what the NBA meant to me?
The scouts, coaches, and GMs lifted their pens and sat there, watching me. Observing every shot. Every dribble. Every interaction I made. Their coaches whispered and their trainers nodded, and they took notes on my every move.
I tried to ignore their eyes following me, but I could feel the end result looming.
The pressure was mounting in my brain like a geyser, even after I left the workout, I wondered, was I good enough?
Had I prepared enough? What were they thinking?
If you squeeze sand in the palm of your hand too tightly, it flows back to the beach.
Let go of control young Jedi.
But I didn’t let go. After I was cut the second time, something broke inside of me. I didn’t touch a basketball for the rest of the summer. I gave up on playing in Europe. I flew home from the Phoenix Suns on the same jet I came in on, watching the orange and purple pastels of the horizon bleed into nothing.
The thing you don’t realize about wanting to control the end result is rather than your focus on the growth or behavior you can control at that moment, you attach your self-worth to something outside your control. This creates a lopsided reality.
Your focus on the end of your journey is redundant.
Focus on the now. Grow now. You’ll always be challenged with problems, with your shortcomings, so focus on growing through it now, not later. The fact I’d define myself as a success or a failure based on a very complicated set of variables out of my control meant I had much to learn about self-awareness.
10 TIPS FOR YOUR SUMMIT SUCCESS:
Take the time to practice gratitude, and climb later.
Go surf (take time to enjoy your life), or be an athlete, and then climb from there.
Hit the south of France and drink some wine, and then climb from there.
Get a van and ride to a National Park, and then climb from your van.
Create a meditation practice, do the practice and forget the summit for awhile, then come back and climb like a banshee.
Then of course, if you feel like people are watching you and you feel pressure, repeat after me: screw the naysayers, just play the game for your own damn self and climb for the climb.
Let go of the early results, the harsh truth, and quick failures.
As they say in Philly, “Trust the Process.” I say, be the process, day in and day out.
If your process is only focused on the result, you are gonna end up suffering like I did.
This is a colossal problem of our American society — we tend to focus on what’s outside our control rather than enjoying what’s inside our daily journey to the summit. Regardless of where you live, where you travel, where you love, where you make sexy time, where you are, you will have to exist with your daily experience.
The science of happiness is in this self-awareness journey of making your climb worth it. Inside every breath. Inside every laugh of love and friendship. In every balanced attack and defense of your time. Inside every interaction with strangers to loved ones.
Yeah, the cliche works, people:
Focus on what you have, not what you don’t, especially if it is on the most important ascent of your life.
If you want something too bad, goals don’t always help. You are too attached to the ending, not the process. This creates more pressure. More stress. More worry.
When the lights turn on, you want to be relaxed. Happy. Grateful. In the moment. In the zone, much like my nightly walk to shoot hoops and do what I loved.
If the mountaintop consumes you, your soul can die up there because there is less oxygen and no growth in the now.
So remember why you are climbing to the top of your mountain in the first place. Our summits exist, not in a vacuum, but in the fabric of everyday life.