Michael Jordan was the face of the NBA for practically all of the 1990s.
In 1991, he helped the Chicago Bulls beat the Los Angeles Lakers in his first ever NBA finals. In 1992, he helped them crush the Portland Trailblazers. In 1993, he led them to beat the Phoenix Suns.
And then he quit.
At the peak of his career — when he had the entire world at his feet, the attention of the entire media, and millions of dollars coming in — Michael Jordan decided to leave.
He wanted to try playing baseball instead.
People thought he was crazy. He hadn’t even played the sport since he was in high school. And now he was trying to compete in the major leagues against people who had been practicing every day for their entire lives.
This is what Michael Jordan’s agent said about him:
“It took a lot of guts to retire when he did. It took a lot of guts to go play baseball and run the risk of failure after being incredibly successful at something else. But Michael is fearless.”
Imagine everyone in the world criticizing you, scrutinizing your every move while you try to do something for the first time that you’ve never done before. Imagine knowing that if you messed up, you’d be a laughing stock and everybody would judge you for trying.
Jordan’s baseball teammates said “the dude was not afraid to look bad.”
And man, did he look bad.
All the professional baseball players were making fun of him.
Sports Illustrated came out with a cover that said “Bag it, Michael! Jordan and the White Sox are Embarrassing Baseball.”
He had a few fans who would come out every game and support him. But they always went home disappointed because he never played well.
He told everyone, “I’m really trying to learn this game.”
But he couldn’t. He got assigned to a team in the “prospects league” where he had to play with a bunch of teenagers as a 31-year old.
Michael Jordan failed spectacularly.
There’s no success story here. He didn’t come back to win anything. He never made it to the major leagues. He never proved anybody wrong. He didn’t learn anything new.
He tried really hard, everybody doubted him and said he was stupid, and eventually he failed and gave up.
But he was 100% cool with it.
In one interview, a journalist asked him, “What if after all this effort, you never made it to the major leagues? Would you be upset?”
He said “No.”
“That would only be a credit to the game of baseball. I’m just here to see if I can do it and have fun trying.”
The Psychology of an Unbeatable Mind
Our culture puts a disproportionate focus on results.
We love success stories — we love hearing about people who are hyper-driven, ambitious, and overcome all the odds to succeed. We’re obsessed with celebrities. We treat people who “made it” like gods.
But the truth is, most people who get results don’t actually focus on getting them.
If you focus on results too much, you’ll feel overwhelmed.
You’ll start thinking of all the ways you could mess up when trying something new. You’ll think yourself in circles with all the “what-if” scenarios, and you’ll let your fears hold you back.
You’ll procrastinate on actually trying.
Think about the areas of life where we do this.
Most of us are working jobs we’re not super excited about, but we’re afraid of making the “leap” to something new because we’re afraid of the unknown.
Some of us might be underpaid, but we’re afraid of asking for a raise because we might look stupid or damage our reputation.
Many of us we genuinely want to try something new, but we’re afraid of putting in effort because we might fail and waste a lot of time. We’re afraid we might not get results.
And that’s what separates mentally tough people from everyone else.
Mentally tough people value intentions over results, while most people value results over intention.
That’s why Michael Jordan had a huge smile on his face during every baseball game, even though he knew he wasn’t good. To him, success meant trying to win — not actually winning.
Mentally tough people aren’t held back by fear of failure. They’re not afraid of trying and screwing up. That’s why they’re the ones who “skip the line” past everyone else in virtually every area of life.
They’re the ones who are able to build careers they love, while so many others settle for “so-so” jobs.
They’re the ones who are able to shortcut their way to exec level positions before they’re “supposed” to, while everyone else decides to work their way up because they feel unqualified.
Here’s what they do, that most people don’t:
Create two paths to victory
In his book Meditations, former Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius wrote this:
“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do. Self indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
Of course, it’s not bad to be ambitious. It’s okay to want “superficial” things like more money, or more recognition from other people.
But the truth is, the external rewards of your actions are not actually in your control.
You could craft the best job application ever, send it in, and have nobody notice it. You could have the best negotiation script laid out, and still not get a raise. You could prep for days for a job interview, get “brain freeze” and say one dumb thing, and not get the offer.
That’s why most high performers focus on internal rewards over external ones.
For example, let’s say you wake up early every morning to go work out. The external reward might be six pack abs, but the internal reward is the fact that you’re practicing self discipline.
If you’re learning new skills to make a “leap” to your dream career, the external reward might be job satisfaction, but the internal reward is the fact that you’re practicing self respect by going after what you want.
If you have built-in external and internal rewards in everything you do, you’ll have two paths to victory.
That way, even if you lose, you still win.
Realize that there is no “good” or “bad”
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare
One evening, there was a massive explosion in New Jersey. Thomas Edison owned a series of buildings where he ran his experiments — and they all erupted in flames.
It was too much for the fire department to handle. The fire was too powerful. Thomas Edison’s buildings burned down, along with all the work he had in there.
His son was at the scene too, standing there completely speechless.
If any inventor went through a situation like this, they’d be devastated. And rightfully so — most people would feel terrible watching years and years of hard work vanish right in front of their eyes.
But Thomas Edison wasn’t like most people. He had ridiculously strong mental toughness.
Edison looked at his son and said, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They will never see a fire like this again.” When his son objected, he said “It’s all right. We just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
A New York Times reporter later asked him what he was going to do next.
Edison said “Although I’m over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.” And as promised, he got back to work the next morning without firing any of his employees.
Mentally tough people know that there’s nothing that’s objectively good or bad — how we respond to it is what makes it good or bad.
Even in cases of extreme adversity, you still have an opportunity to practice what the Stoics call “virtues” — character traits like generosity, humility, self control, and discipline.
Mental toughness isn’t just about having confidence that you’ll win, or “believing in yourself.”
It’s about tying success to the journey, not the end result.
It’s about knowing that even if you lose, you still won. Because you got to play the game.
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