I usually write about how to focus better for a less stressed, more productive life. But today's post is about Kobe Bryant and the wisdom that comes with age. It's not my usual topic, but today it does not seem appropriate to write about any other topic than Kobe.
I wrote the following article a few years ago for another blog, when I had set a goal for myself to run five marathons in one year for charity. So what follows is not an after-the-fact reflection, but a real-time testament to the inspiration Kobe gave me when he was playing basketball in his prime.
In one sense, though, it also really is what I usually write about - because there never was a more focused, disciplined and hardworking athlete than Kobe Bryant - and all of us can continue to draw inspiration from his example.
Kobe Bryant is one of my son’s heroes. Not surprising, since my son eats, sleeps and breathes basketball. My son first became enthralled with the sport as a little boy when we lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball. We made the pilgrimage countless times to Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame to learn about the legends of the game.
At first, I was the one explaining to him who was who – Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson. He figured out who Michael Jordan was on his own. Now the tables are turned. My son is a teen, playing for an elite youth team sponsored by Jerusalem’s professional basketball team. He knows every player, past and present, who ever dribbled a ball for the NBA, along with all of their statistics. He knows most of the players in the Euroleague too.
My son has his heroes, the players who stand out in a sea of formidable talent, the role models who never stop trying to improve their game long after they’ve reached the top. Kobe Bryant is one of them.
Kobe Bryant has become my hero too. As a 50-year old amateur runner trying to rack up five marathons this year, Kobe has taught me that age can sometimes be an advantage.
The scene is the 2012 Olympic Games held in London. The U.S.A. Olympic team included the best of the best of the NBA. Of all the superstars on the team that year, Kobe Bryant, at the ripe old age of 33, was the most senior. He had a full decade on many of his teammates, who had taken to calling him “OG” – Original Gangster.
As related by his personal trainer, Tim Grover, a reporter asked Kobe whether he thought he could learn anything from his younger teammates.
Kobe got to the point right away: “No.”
The reporter pressed, “You know everything?”
“I don’t know if I know it all,” Kobe responded, “but I know more than they do.”
The younger players had a level of quickness and energy that an older player would find hard to match. But Kobe had years of experience working meticulously on every detail of his game. Kobe had tested every play in real time in hundreds of games and thousands of scenarios. That’s something no younger player could ever bring to the table.
Or, as Tim Grover bluntly put it, "A veteran player knows that his maturity and experience and seasoned instinct are priceless compared to that of a kid with fresh legs and a ten-cent head."
Youth, of course, can have its advantages. But Kobe Bryant was on to something when he flatly asserted that youth had nothing to teach him. As true as this may be of professional sports, where the agility of youth truly can make the difference between winning and losing, it is that much more true of our more sedentary daily pursuits.
Ironically, we live in a culture that increasingly worships youth at a time when the less young are able to age more gracefully, and perform far better for more years than ever before. All of the "sixty is the new fifty," "fifty is the new forty" and "ninety is the new eighty" is true.
A generation or two ago, many doctors would have urged a 50-year old like me trying to run five marathons in a year to forget it – surely, there would too many medical risks. Yet, not only am I not unique – I have found plenty of people well beyond fifty for whom running marathons is a routine matter.
I have nothing against youth – I even tried it once when I was younger. Rather, I think we are missing something as a society by looking too longingly at youth and failing to appreciate the gifts that only older people have to bring to the table.
In some fields, like high-tech, forty is over the hill and even thirty might be pushing it for some new start-ups. I have several friends who have been laid off in their fifties. With no one willing to hire them at that age, some have used their considerable experience to launch thriving businesses and become successful consultants. The consultants are often sought out for their wisdom by companies who would never hire someone that age for their own staff.
Paradoxically, as age discrimination becomes more rampant, we have a larger and larger cadre of older workers who have a lot of value to offer and still have plenty of energy to burn. I have come across articles claiming that age and experience don't matter.
Typically, these articles compare a smart, energetic young person who can learn a new job quickly with a lethargic, burned-out, older employee who hasn't learned one new thing on the job in the past twenty years. Of course, it's a false comparison – there's no shortage of young people who don't care about their jobs, and it's not hard to find older people who are still enthusiastic, learning and growing.
A true comparison would be between an enthusiastic young person and an enthusiastic older person. That's the Kobe Bryant scenario, where the younger person has much to learn from the older person's experience.
With youth comes speed. No matter what I eat or how much I work on my form, I don't run as fast as I did twenty-five years ago. But I run better. I run smarter. I run with more insight, greater awareness and fewer injuries. That's why I could run a 5K in less time at twenty-five, but at fifty, I can run five marathons. I've lost a bit of speed, but I've gained a lot of perspective.
We all have gifts to offer the world. Like Kobe Bryant, if approached with the right mindset, the gifts we offer can become greater with the passage of time. Virtuosity can come with youth. Greatness takes more time.
As Tim Grover, Kobe's trainer, says, "The greats never stop learning."