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Success Changes Nothing

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XXXVIII


NBA players are rich, famous, successful and unhappy.

The total NBA revenue in the 2017-2018 was over 8 billion dollars. The NBA is more visible than it’s ever been. Every game is live streamed. NBA players are celebrities. Every move they make, outfit they wear, and place they go is admired by fans. NBA players are superstars; they’re paid more money than most could ever dream of. They’ve made it to the highest level of basketball. They have the accolades, the fame, the money, so you’d think they have no reason not to be unhappy--but they are.

In an interview at the Sports Analytics Conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said,

“I think we live in the age of anxiety. When I meet with the players, what strikes me is that they are truly unhappy. This is not some show they’re putting on for the media. When I’m one-on-one with a lot of these guys, I think to the outside world, they see the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it, they’re the best in the world at what they do, they say how is it possible they could even be complaining? A lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy. Some of them are amazingly isolated.

This goes back to Jordan, in Michael’s last season with the bulls, I mean the camaraderie was incredible. There was classic team-building going on all the time, these guys were a band of brothers-on the buses on the planes, and all the attention only brought them closer.

If you’re around a team in this day and age, their headphones are on, they’re isolated and their head is down.

I remember years ago, Isiah Thomas said to me, “Championships are won on the bus.” and he meant that.

The reality is most don’t want to play together. There’s enormous jealousy amongst our players, everybody's got to be the alpha.

The best teams have relationships and maybe this is why the Bulls and the Spurs were so high-functioning.

I had a conversation with a superstar player, he was playing a game friday night and their next game was Sunday night in Miami. He said to me, from the time I get on the plane to the time I show up in the arena on sunday, I won’t see a single person. And he said to me “I know if I said this publicly, people would say poor baby.” He was incredibly lonely, but to the point where it was almost a pathology, it wasn't just hey I’m lonely, it was a deep sadness. They're real issues.”

Adam Silver began this conversation by talking about the players constantly shifting of teams in the nba; implying that there is an underlying belief in some players that if I can be on this team and we can win then i’ll be happy, but that’s never the case. External achievement or circumstances can’t fulfill us internally. Winning is fleeting, it changes nothing about who you are as a person, because a win is an event and you are a being.

All Glory is Fleeting

Our society has been fed the lie that success will lead to happiness. We believe once we reach a certain level of achievement, a certain number in our bank account, or a certain number of followers, we’ll be happy.

Yet, there are people who have millions of fans, make hundreds of millions of dollars playing a game and they are not happy. Clearly, this logic that success will bring us happiness and fulfillment is flawed, but we still expect it. So many people win or make it to the next level and their first thought is that’s it?

If success bred happiness, NBA players would be some of the most fulfilled people on the planet, but they aren’t.

Success does not breed happiness, because external achievement can’t change you internally.

An undefeated season, a trophy, or a banner can't turn you into a happy person; it will feel good for a little while, then you’ll need something else or more, there’s always the next game or the next season. We’re always being compared to something or someone better, especially because of social media.

This doesn’t mean winning and success aren’t worthy pursuits. You should always play to win. However, there are things even more worthy of pursuing that will bring us lasting happiness and fulfillment: excellence, relationships, and joy.

Success is a byproduct of the pursuit of excellence, relationships, and joy; that’s what will bring us lasting fulfillment and happiness.

Chase Excellence

Success is an event, excellence is a process. Success is the pursuit of wins, trophies, or levels. Excellence is the gradual pursuit of getting better every day.

Success is the having, excellence is the being.

Excellence is the constant hunger, effort, and drive to learn and improve. Excellence is living by your values. When you chase excellence, success will follow.

Success is about what you possess; materialism is a dead end.

Build Relationships

Isiah Thomas played for the Detroit Pistons and led his team to back-to-back NBA Championships. His statement “Championships are won on buses.” is profound when you realize the kind of team he was leading. It sounds like a quote that would come from a team where everyone plays really nice and everyone is well behaved but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Isiah Thomas was leading the toughest, most physical, and arguably one of the best teams to play basketball. They were nicknamed the “Bad Boys”. This team was infamous for the brawls they were involved in, they were not afraid to throw the first punch, they were going to win and shut the other team’s best player down by any means necessary. The bad boys were fearless because they were together. They endured an unprecedented amount of hate for their dirty style of play, but their comradery was unmatched, and they attribute their championships to those relationships.

Championships are won on buses means they spent their time engaging with each other instead of isolating themselves. According to, “Having more numerous and deeper connections predicts better health and well-being, the support reduces the impact of stress on our brains and bodies.” We have an innate need for relationships, to connect with those around us. According to psychology researcher Shawn Anchor, “Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance.” The highest performing teams have great relationships. Take off the headphones, engage, build relationships.

Choose Joy

Don’t make happiness your goal, choose joy. Happiness is circumstantial. Happiness is the fleeting feeling you get after a win. Joy is not a response to a result. Joy is a choice. Joy is the attitude we have when we’re doing something we believe in, something that gives us purpose, or something we love, regardless of the results. Joy has nothing to do with results or circumstances, it’s purely inward.

Too many people postpone joy until they’re “successful”. There are no prerequisites to joy. You don’t have to wait until you to win or reach a certain level, it’s something you choose every day. Choose joy where you are while you work for everything you want. Don’t wait for success to “make you happy”, it never will; don’t postpone joy.

Studies have shown that those who workout without joy have a greater endurance. If you wait for success to make you happy, you’ll miss out on a significant performance advantage that comes from choosing joy while you go after your goals.

Action Step:

Redefine Success.

Instead of defining success in terms of acquiring wins, awards, and external achievements, redefine success to improving things within your control: relationships, excellence, and joy.


Written by Julie Fournier


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