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In the face of adversity, do you conform or transform?

September 15, 2014

Earlier this week I had the rare opportunity of going through a few things basketball. Actually, I have to admit it all started when I went looking for some inspiring and motivating video clips on youtube. I had no specific category in mind but then somehow I landed on sportsmen. There were quite a number of them but the one that really inspired me was one about a 6-6 sized basketball legend who wears shoe size 13. Infact, he was so phenomenal during his time that Nike named a shoe brand after him. If you are an ardent sports lover, or a shoe-holic like half my friends and family members are, you must have deduced by now that I am referring to one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, fondly nicknamed Air Jordan because while on the pitch, it seemed like he spent most of his time in the air than on the ground.

The clip I landed on was captured when he was giving his speech during the Basketball Wall of Fame enshrinement. For such a strong guy, he was overcome with emotion when he was called to the podium, crying for nearly four minutes before he could finally compose himself and start talking. When he spoke, I understood why being in front of the hundreds of people who had influenced his life in the past turned him into such a gentle giant. I can’t recount everything here but you can watch it yourself here. For the purpose of driving my point home however, I will pinpoint the particular segments of his speech that really touched me.

He attended Laney High school in Wilmington, North Carolina, but as a 5-11 skinny sophomore, he was cut from the varsity basketball team. His not making it to the team became his motivation instead of a depressant and after training hard and incessantly, I am not sure whether it was due to the hard work he put it or by a shear miracle that by the summer before his junior year, he grew to 6-3 and began his path to super-stardom.

Making it to join the team did not end his chain of obstacles but it seemed to spook many more. After joining the team, he was paired up with a room-mate who was called by the media “the player of the year”. Again, that did not disappoint Jordan or discourage him but instead it acted as a motivator for him to flip that around and as a sophomore, he was named “College Player of the Year” by The Sporting News. As a junior, he received that award again as well as the Naismith and Wooden Awards. After his junior year he was chosen with the third overall pick in the “1984 NBA Draft” by the Chicago Bulls. From that point on there was no stopping him.

He did not let his achievement so far cloud his possibilities and so he worked even harder and even though he did face even bigger challenges, he never once settled for anything less than perfection in his game. Half the time he played with major injuries but still sustained and brought glory to whatever team he was playing for. He had to put up with a lot of discouraging media reports and reporters who kept comparing him to the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saying he wasn’t as good as them. Surprisingly, those same players came back to refute the media reports and said some very interesting things. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, Larry Bird following a playoff game where Jordan dropped 63 points on the Boston Celtics in just his second season, had this to say: "god disguised as Michael Jordan”. On the same breath, the famous Magic Johnson was quoted saying, “there is Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us”.

Air Jordan never allowed negative energy to touch him but instead, he flipped any negative stuff that was said about him and used it as a catalyst to spur him on to the next level. He proved a lot of his nay-sayers wrong living up to his own advice that hard work, perseverance and a great attitude always bring about success. Whenever he found himself in a tough situation, he would work even harder and put in more effort till he emerged victorious. To quote his last statement during his enshrinement speech, “limits like fears, are almost always an illusion”.

His story reminded me of a fable I read a while back about potatoes, eggs, and coffee beans.

Once upon a time a daughter complained to her father that her life was miserable and that she didn’t know how she was going to make it. She was tired of fighting and struggling all the time, and it seemed just as one problem was solved, another one soon followed.

Her father, a chef, took her to the kitchen, filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Once the three pots began to boil, he placed potatoes in one pot, eggs in the second pot, and ground coffee beans in the third pot. He then let them sit and boil, without saying a word to his daughter. The daughter, moaned and impatiently waited, wondering why he had chosen that moment to offer her a lesson in cooking.

After twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He took the potatoes out of the pot and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. He then ladled the coffee out and placed it in a cup. Finally breaking the silence he turned to her and asked, “Daughter, what do you see?”

“Potatoes, eggs, and coffee,” she hastily and irritably replied.

“Look closer,” he said, “and touch the potatoes.”

She did and noted that (not as unexpected) they were soft. He then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed that (as expected) the boiling had hardened the egg. Finally, he asked her to sip the coffee and as it is with many people, its rich aroma brought a smile to her face.

“Father, what does this mean?” she asked.

He then explained that the potatoes, the eggs and coffee beans had each faced the same adversity; the boiling water. However, each one reacted differently. The potato went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but in boiling water, it became soft and weak. The egg was fragile, with the thin outer shell protecting its liquid interior until it was put in the boiling water. Then the inside of the egg became hard.

However, the ground coffee beans were unique. After they were exposed to the boiling water, they changed the water and created something totally new.

Finally he asked his daughter, “which one are you? When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a potato, an egg, or a coffee bean?”

In life, things happen and will continue to happen around us and to us, but the only thing that truly matters is what happens within us. I have said it before in a similar post and I will say it again in this one, that if there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do us no harm. Michael Jordan did have a lot of enemies without, but the one enemy he chose to overcome is the one who could easily destroy him; himself. Air Jordan never let negativity dampen his spirits but instead he used it as air (no pun intended) under his wings to carry him higher and higher to greater heights. Though he passed through a lot of boiling water, he never allowed himself to soften like a potato.

This week my question to you is the same question the chef asked his daughter. In the face of adversity which of the three ingredients above do you become? Do you soften like a potato, do you harden like an egg, or better still, do you totally transform, transforming the people and area around you?

Think about this question critically and answer it as honestly as possible and once you do, you will be able to see how best you can make yourself a better person.

Wishing you all a persistent week.

PS: Article published in Tanzania's Guardian on Sunday on the 14th September, 2014, under my weekly column "Thoughts in Words"

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