“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu
On March 2 1962, Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain had the highest scoring NBA basketball game of all time. He scored 100 points in that game, a feat likely never to be repeated. Chamberlain was the number two highest average scoring player in history, behind Michael Jordan. He would have easily been number one, had it not been for his free throws.
Wilt Chamberlain was terrible at free throws. Terrible. He was so bad that the coach wouldn’t play him at the end of a close game, since the opposing team only needed to foul him, and send him to the free throw line, where he would surely miss.
Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s teammate on the Golden State Warriors, Rick Barry, was the most accurate free throw shooter in the league. By the time he retired, Barry was the most accurate free-throw shooter in NBA history, averaging 90.0 percent of his free-throw attempts. In his final season, Barry hit over 94% of his free throws. Rick Barry shot all of his free throws underhanded. That’s right, Barry shot “granny style.”
You might think since both Chamberlain and Barry were on the same team, Chamberlain would learn a thing or two about shooting free throws. Well, sort of. For a short period, Barry convinced, and taught, Chamberlain to shoot underhanded also. He improved his free throws remarkably. But it didn’t stick. Chamberlain said he couldn’t do it. He said he felt “like a sissy” shooting underhanded.
Read interviews with Rick Barry, and it’s pretty clear he never gave a damn what other people thought of how he shot the ball. In his mind, the point was to get the shot in, so he never cared what other people thought.
What other people think of us – or what we think other people think of us – means so much that we would often rather fall back on old habits, or abandon new thinking and new ideas, in favor of simply fitting in.
The difference between those who succeed, and those who sit comfortably in lackluster positions, is they are willing to fight the gravitational pull of mediocrity.
“The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”
– John Stuart Mill
A study from Duke University back in 2006 revealed that over 40% of what we believe are conscious choices every day, are actually habits. Chamberlain just couldn’t make a habit out of shooting underhanded because he felt embarrassed by it. He was too concerned about what the world thought of him. He was the greatest basketball player of his era, and still he couldn’t get over what other people thought of how he shot free throws.
There is an important, and distinct, difference between trying, and failing, at something, and being a failure. The key difference is how we think about it.
Real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran lost nearly everything in her first failed marketing campaign. Bill Gates’s first company, Traf-O-Data, was a complete bomb. Milton Hershey’s famous company, Hershey’s, was actually the fourth candy company he founded, after the first three failed.
Failing at an effort is not the same as being a failure. The most important mindset shift is to think of our work as experimentation, not as either successes or failures, but instead simply experiments, which we can constantly improve upon. It’s the shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. And that reframing is a small act of leadership.