I first saw the news on Facebook. I didn’t believe it. It was from a news source I had never heard of and, more importantly, it couldn’t be true.
Then the YouTube spiral. I watched video after video of athletes and sportscasters reacting to the news. First their incredulity. Then shock. Then tears. Right there, on national television, the tears.
It was a Sunday, and I was supposed to do some work for a local gym that I had been helping out on the side while working at MassMutual. I called the gym owner that late afternoon, asked if he had heard the news, and explained that I just didn’t have it in me today.
I revisited the YouTube spiral a few times over the next week or two. More people crying on air. Jerry West. Shaq. “Girl dad”. An incredible outpouring of grief and admiration in the comments. Oof.
One week after Kobe’s death, I gave MassMutual my notice.
Kobe’s legacy is utter dedication. He lived basketball. It was his entire focus. He worked insanely hard on his craft. I don’t mean the hyperbolic way we often use the word “insane”. Kobe’s work ethic actually bordered on insanity. On the day he died, commentator Jay Williams told a perfect story. Williams was a rookie about to play the Lakers that night. He went into the gym early to take a bunch of jump shots. Kobe was there already, doing a game-intensity workout. Williams took shots for over an hour, and as he left, Kobe was still working out. He doubted the star would have enough energy left for the game that night. Instead, Kobe torched them “in every facet of the game”. After the game, the two ran into each other. Williams knew it was lame, but he had to ask: why were you working out so hard before a game? Kobe’s reply changed his life: “I saw you come into the gym, and I wanted you to know that no matter how hard you worked, you weren’t going to outwork me.”
Kobe once said he “worked hard in the dark to shine in the light”. You think he was born good at basketball? Nope. His father played in the NBA, but Kobe still had to work to get good. When he was twelve years old, he played an entire season of summer league and scored zero points. Not a free throw, not a fast break layup, not a lucky shot. But he had heard that Michael Jordan had been cut from his high school team, and he wanted to be good at basketball, so he got to work. Six years later, he went straight from high school into the NBA draft. Four years after that, he won the first of his five NBA championships.
The day he died, two thoughts filled my mind:
- Life is short. It might be even shorter than expected. Spend it well.
- What’s my basketball?
I immediately started reconsidering what I was doing with my life. I had a good job at a Fortune 100 company and was making the most money I ever had; my net worth was finally moving in the right direction after taking out a big loan to go to grad school. I had struggled through the first 2-3 months of the job and then figured out the technical aspects of it and made some major contributions. A few weeks earlier I had earned a spot bonus for taking a leading role on a huge project. As the technical part of the job got easier for me, I turned my attention more to the interpersonal team components: how we organized our work, how we communicated with other teams, how we planned large projects, and how we could debrief more in order to learn and grow. As I advocated more, I consistently encountered agreement and gratitude from my peers and resistance from management. It grew frustrating.
As I thought about Kobe in the days after his death, I asked – how can I get myself in a position where I wake up each morning, know what my goal is, and find in that goal the motivation to perform and hone my craft? Having tackled the technical part of my job at MassMutual, I considered that my next goal could be to earn a leadership position there, but increasingly saw that the culture created incentives to conform, not reform. That wasn’t going to work for me.
So one week to the day after Kobe died, I submitted a sixteen-page statement about my team’s areas for improvement and gave my two weeks notice. I left the door open for management to say they wanted to work on those things with me, but they chose to let me leave.
Somehow, even though coronavirus hit Massachusetts a few weeks after I quit my job, things have gotten off to a great start. I started a data-driven marketing consultancy, immediately got two clients, launched this website, and established a good routine of work, reading, writing, and exercise. I re-engaged with the western Mass startup community and the Holyoke civic community. I immediately became more lighthearted. My partner was thrilled for me, found me to be a much more pleasant roommate, and said she was excited to see the best version of me emerge.
I still don’t know exactly what my basketball is. It will take more time to find the one thing that can become a years-long singular pursuit, but I’ve put myself in a position to figure it out. At MassMutual, I would have continued to spend 50 hours and a lot of emotional effort each week fighting against the current, and this wouldn’t have left me with the creative mental space to consider what I really wanted to do with my life. Now I can pick my projects, cultivate skills, find good teammates, and build something from scratch.
Like most ambitious achievers, Kobe Bryant the basketball player always seemed unsatisfied. (Perhaps other than when he was holding a trophy between large hands covered in sweat and champagne.) That dissatisfaction is understandable. Necessary, even. To achieve his goals, he had to stay focused on what needed to improve in himself and others. But for those of us who grew up watching the hungry and demanding “Black Mamba”, the 40-year-old retiree seemed incongruously…content. He was such a happy presence watching NBA games, coaching his daughters, and even winning an Academy Award. I like to imagine that retired Kobe smiled so broadly and breathed so easily because he had given everything he could to his craft and was proud of where that left him.
How can we earn that contentment?