The best way to get some people motivated is to tell them what they can’t do. I learned that many years ago.
Back in junior high school, I was trying out for the basketball team.
With about a thousand other people — okay, maybe it was 50, but it felt like a thousand — hoping to make the team, I appeared at the gym after school. I remember enjoying basketball from the time I could barely throw the ball high enough to clear the basket.
As I got older, I shot up quickly in height. I was never a particularly great shooter. My five-foot, seven-inch frame, which puts me below the eye level of many of my teenage children’s friends today, seemed taller back then.
I could and did grab rebounds, fight for loose balls and play aggressive defense. At the time, we had three days of cuts. The first day, my name appeared on the “come-back-tomorrow” list, which meant that I was still one of the chosen few.
The second day, after an intense and physical tryout, I knew I’d made the list, because the coach nodded several times when I blocked shots and seemed pleased that I raced up the floor to poke the ball away from someone who thought he had a breakaway layup.
It was during lunch on the third day, before the final cut, that I lost my mojo. I was sitting with one of my friends, whom we’ll call John. Through the bits of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that were sticking to his braces, he told me he heard some other kids talking about me on the way to school.
“Oh yeah, what did they say?” I asked.
“They said you were still on the list of players who might make the basketball team,” John said.
I beamed. The final cut would only eliminate two or three more players, which meant that I just had to keep doing what I was doing earlier in the week and I’d make it.
“They also said you travel every time you shoot a layup,” he offered.
“What?” I asked, suddenly feeling as if he punched me in the gut.
“They said you didn’t belong on the team.”
Throughout the afternoon, in my head, I heard the echo of the words “didn’t belong.” When I stepped on the court that day, my feet barely moved and I didn’t even attempt a shot. Not surprising, I didn’t make the team.
Would I be in the NBA if John hadn’t planted the “you-can’t-do-it” bug in my ear? Not a chance. Would I have made the team? Well, maybe!
About 15 years later, I got a job at Bloomberg News. At the time, it was a growing news service and a securities trading device that refused to accept second place in anything. The facilities were magnificent, complete with fish tanks on every floor and free food for employees and guests, which included select company like Tom Hanks and Ed Koch, who came to the “Charlie Rose” show.
When I got the job, I overheard some of my former colleagues discussing how I didn’t belong at Bloomberg. This time, rather than slink away, I was determined to prove them wrong. While it was a challenging job, I enjoyed the opportunity not only to provide Bloomberg with relevant stories but also to compete against some of the best journalists in New York City. Early in my tenure at Bloomberg, I won a deadline writing award.
I’m not suggesting people pour cold water on each other’s aspirations through some misdirected tough love approach. I would, however, urge people not to listen to the nattering nabobs of negativism, a term coined by William Safire and shared by former Vice President Spiro Agnew.