Be like Giannis (for educators)

For all the 1990s basketball fans out there, and even some who just like Michael Jordan, the “Be Like Mike” commercials were a thing of beauty. It captured the 90s incredibly well and inspired many to drink more Gatorade, especially citrus cooler. (Side note, nostalgia made me think it was the greatest flavor ever. Reality hit when I had it for the first time in many years and realized nostalgia usually just tastes weird.)

There were a lot of reasons to be like Mike as a basketball player, and a few reasons not to be like Mike, too, but that’s beside the point.

For the 2020s, I’d like to start the “Be like Giannis” campaign. Unfortunately, “Be like Giannis” doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, but I am going to try to “Be like Giannis” this year as a school leader.

This may look really impressive, but this picture doesn’t come close to capturing the ridiculousness of this block. This was supposed to be an alley-oop dunk. You just don’t block alley-oop dunks. Not just me, a 40 year old expiring athlete. No one does this.
Except Giannis.

During game 4 of the NBA Finals, MVP Giannis Antetonkoumpo blocked a shot that only someone with superhuman ability could pull off. The next day, a reporter asked him if he and his teammates had taken time to watch the highlight and, essentially, bask in the afterglow. He shook his head no, meaning he hadn’t basked in the afterglow, but said he did watch the clip in the film session with his team that day. He added that it was a great play, but “At the end of the day, that’s in the past. When you talk about the past that’s your ego talking.” Another reporter followed up by asking him how, at such a young age, he had developed such a firm grasp of the challenge of ego and humility. Antetonkoumpo responded an insightful understanding of ego, pride, and humility:

Usually when, from my experience, when I think about ‘Oh yeah, I did this, I’m so great. I had 30. I had 25-10-10’ or whatever the case might be, because you’re going to think about that, ‘oh we won this and that,’ usually the next day you’re going to suck. As simple as that. Like the next few days you’re going to be terrible. I figured a mindset to have, when you focus on the past that’s your ego. ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’

“And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride. Like ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this, I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here. I kind of try to focus in the moment. In the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble.

At the time, my mastermind group happened to be reading Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key, also the author of Ego is the Enemy. Needless to say, the quote mirrored what we were reading and we quickly began to relate Giannis’s description of humility to our experience leading in education. I thought about writing this post then, but held off, only to be keenly reminded of the balance between ego, pride, and humility this October. It is a wonderfully humbling time of the year, just after the honeymoon period and before the real settling in (which I’m not sure ever really happens).

Two weeks ago, as September and our third week of school came to a close, parents were asking about how the school year was going. I commented to many that it felt like we were really starting to settle into our routines. Whether it was a combination of past/ego or future/pride, a “we’ve done this before, we’re going to be great” mindset, my humility was clearly not at its peak. The last two weeks have been clear reminders of how quickly things can change, and how one should never get too comfortable or confident when teaching or leading in schools. It seems like each moment in which I dare go past true confidence to bask in the success of one moment, another moment comes along to knock me back down.

Experienced educators know that conflicts can occur quickly, and while we do our best to control what we can, there is only so much to control. The most frustrating moments are those in which you feel that you didn’t control what you could. There are relatively simple ways to check in and uncover the mini-conflicts bubbling just under the surface. If you can catch these before they begin to boil over, usually through a few simple conversations, you can save yourself a lot of work and stress. In hindsight, I usually feel like I could have caught something, had I just looked in the right place or through the correct lens. And I know that is unfair, because we can’t see everything, but it is worth considering how to keep an eye or ear on as much as we can as often as we can.

In our mastermind discussion, I shared how, when I am feeling most present and humble, I am thinking carefully about the potential challenges. In the best scenarios, it is a state of flow. Your mind is working, but you don’t know it’s working. You are looking forward, checking your rearview mirrors, and almost unconsciously aware of everything around you.

As a teacher, it meant being in the right place on the playground, predicting the pitfalls of a lesson before you’ve taught it, or recognizing a small detail about a student and asking them what’s going on. Being in the right place or asking the right question leads to insights that help students get the support they need before they even know they need it.

As an administrator, I think about the presentation at an upcoming faculty meeting, or the message you need to send about an ongoing challenge. If I am in my confident, humble, flow state, I have ‘drafted’ my plan many times. I’ve shared bits and pieces with trusted faculty members and other school leaders to test it out. I’ve asked for feedback from teachers who will be most skeptical, because they will ask the most valuable questions. For the tricky email, I’ve sought out critical feedback, not just looking for typos, but for colleagues, or a trusted parent, who will tell me how it feels to read it from their perspective. From these requests, I receive humbling feedback, reminding me how a certain phrase might land, or how to improve the tone. They will point out something I overlooked as a small detail, but was incredibly important to them. When you are confident, you seek out the feedback you don’t really want to hear, but know that you need to do your job well.

On a recent Freakonomics Radio Book Club podcast episode, Angela Duckworth interviewed Chris Bosh, a former NBA player who was successful, but whose career was ended early by a blood clot. In his [not exact] words, “Confidence is created by preparation, feeling like you are ready for a situation because you’ve put in the time and effort needed to get there, you are ready to meet the challenge… Ego is an irrational confidence, about deserving something that you haven’t worked to get, that you haven’t prepared for.”

Preparation is the key. When I am humble, I prepare more effectively. When I am egotistical or prideful, my awareness and self-awareness takes a back seat and my preparation suffers. Honestly, we need to experience moments of ego and pride, because that lack of preparation will likely lead to failure. If I take the big shot and miss, or present “brilliant” new idea to faculty and get shot down with lots of reasonable, yet gut-punching questions, I should be humbled and motivated to prepare more effectively in the future. Living in the ego means you may blame the missed shot on a bad pass or the poorly executed idea on your colleagues’ lack of vision. Letting humility remind you that your failure in that moment was a result of a lack of preparation will lead to greater humility, greater respect for the situation, greater preparation for a similar situation in the future. This is where you might find true confidence.

Once again, October has humbled me. It has forced me to look carefully at missed opportunities for information and understanding. It has provided me with greater respect for a few key situations which I will prepare for more carefully in the future. I am also going to take time each day to consider where I need to be looking. What am I hearing, seeing, noticing that can help me reach that flow state? Where do I need to be? Who do I need to talk to? Hopefully they will put me in the right place at the right moment, and I will probably feel really good about it for a moment. And then I will remind myself to “Be Like Giannis” and put it in the past, so I can be more present.

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