lessons learned michael jordan documentary career advice

7 Lessons This Non-Basketball Fan Learned From Watching the Michael Jordan Documentary That You Can Apply to Your Life and Career, Too

Besides a brief period of time in the mid-1990s when Patrick Ewing, John Starks and the rest of the New York Knicks seemed like they might truly have a chance of bringing glory back to New York, I’ve never been a real fan of the NBA.

Nevertheless, since I grew up in the 80s and 90s, of course I knew all about Michael Jordan. Who didn’t? His jerseys, sneakers, and ads were everywhere you looked. So when, a few weeks-deep into a strict coronavirus quarantine in New York City, the ten-part Michael Jordan documentary premiered on ESPN, and I’d already binged Tiger King, I figured I’d give it a chance.

Little did I know that I’d find myself binging that entire series, too, in just a few days. Not only was it fascinating to see behind the scenes of such an iconic player and team, I actually learned a ton and felt inspired by what I saw. And none of that had anything to do with basketball.

These are the seven take-aways, life lessons, career lessons, whatever you want to call them, that I learned from watching the Michael Jordan documentary that I still think about almost daily. I hope you are inspired by some of them, too, and can apply the philosophies to your life and career.


1. Let your game do the talking.

Even if you don’t know much about MJ on the basketball court (although that’s doubtful), surely you know him from his endorsements. From his coveted Air Jordans to his famous Gatorade ad that made us all want to “be like Mike,” he was everywhere in the 80s and 90s. And being everywhere meant lots of money in endorsements from companies like Nike, McDonald’s, and more.

But those endorsements didn’t appear because MJ was charming or had potential – they showed up because he brought it on the court, every single game, every single practice, and every single day. MJ let his game do the talking and the endorsements and money followed.

What can us non-superstar athletes learn from this? We all know the people who talk a big talk but have nothing to back it up. Usually, eventually, everyone else figures out that those people are frauds and their voices are weeded out.

The ones who have the skills to back up their work are the ones who eventually come out on top.

With one caveat (see the next lesson below): the lesson for me was, if you are patient and let your work speak for itself, the accolades (whether it is praise, a higher salary, or something else) will follow.


2. Ask for what you’re worth.

Letting your skills do the talking for you is great and all, but that doesn’t mean you should stay quiet and rely just on those skills. You absolutely need to advocate for yourself and promote yourself, too, because if you don’t speak up for yourself, you will surely miss out on opportunities.

Lesson number two is this: once you’ve mastered the skills and have the game down, ask for what you’re worth.

What do you immediately think of when you think of Michael Jordan? Probably the Chicago Bulls, followed closely by MJ’s right-hand man, Scottie Pippen. Even non-basketball fans like myself know number 33. And number 33 did not get paid what he was worth.

Early on in his career, Scottie Pippen agreed to a long-term contract with the Bulls that did not pay him nearly enough, and he turned out to be one of the most underpaid superstars in the NBA. He (understandably) accepted the contract because he wanted to make sure his family would be taken care of if he got injured and his career was cut short. Fortunately, he continued playing for many years, but, unfortunately, he was locked into that original deal.

What can we learn from Scottie Pippen? When negotiating our own salaries, it’s important not to settle and to make sure we don’t accept a job or a salary because we are fearful of the future or think we won’t be able to get more in the future or from another employer.

This can be a tough topic for many of us, but there are plenty of resources out there that can help with salary negotiation. If you are in the market for a new job or think it’s time to renegotiate your current salary, I’d suggest checking out some of these resources (like Know Your Worth: Salary Negotiation for Women, by Olivia Jaras or 99 Negotiating Strategies, by David Rosen) to teach yourself the skills you need so you never get paid less than what you are worth again.


3. Never stop working on your dreams.

MJ didn’t take off days – like, ever. He didn’t mess around with his teammates when they were partying or doing things that took away from basketball. Instead, he remained laser-focused on improving his game and achieving his dreams, at all times.

While this might sound extreme, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t pay off. The people who are fully devoted to what they do end up at the top of their field.

Another master of his craft, Steven King, talks about having a similar work ethic in his book, On Writing. He never takes a day off from writing – not Christmas, not when traveling – never, and this is one of the keys to his success.

Is the lesson here that you have to vow never to take a day off from whatever your “craft” is (whether that is a sport, writing, or anything else)? Maybe not. But what if you tried it? What if for 30 days you didn’t take a day off? Try it out and let me know how it goes. I’m trying it right along with you and will report back!


4. Allow your people to be themselves if you want them to thrive.

This is my absolute favorite lesson. If you run an organization or have any sort of leadership role in your life or work, think carefully about this one. And if you’re writing the idea off because you don’t own your own business or aren’t a partner at a law firm, think again. We all have some sort of leadership role in our lives. Whether you have subordinates at work or at home (ahem, kids, for example), you can apply the principles of this lesson.

Like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, basketball and non-basketball fans alike know who Dennis Rodman is. Before he was traveling to North Korea to visit Kim Jung Un, he was doing other crazy things back at home, in Detroit, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Prior to joining the Bulls, his previous teams tried to put him in a box and treat him like they treated every other player. But you can’t treat Dennis Rodman like any other player, and the Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson, knew this.

In what would sound to most like an insane idea, Jackson allowed Rodman to take a couple of days off to go to Las Vegas in the middle of the 1998 NBA finals. He obviously knew Rodman was not going to be taking it easy there (he didn’t), but he also knew that to get the best out of him, he had to allow Rodman to fully be himself. At the time, being fully himself meant partying in Las Vegas with Carmen Electra for 48 hours straight.

Say whatever you will about Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, and the Bulls, but I loved this story and thought it showed brilliant leadership. Rodman returned from Vegas (late, but still, he made it back), didn’t miss a beat at practice or during the next game, and the Bulls ended up winning the championship that year.

What can we learn from this? We can follow Jackson’s lead and allow our team members, co-workers, and anyone we interact or live with to be themselves, fully.

This might mean making certain exceptions for someone at the office, experimenting with new ideas, or trying something totally different at home with your kids, but why not? What have you got to lose (other than a quality person who cannot thrive in an environment that he or she feels unwelcome or trapped in)?


5. Have a strong support network.

Early on in the documentary, MJ said something along the lines of “there is no Michael Jordan without Scottie Pippen.” While MJ was, of course, the focus of the championship Bulls team, he had a strong support system, both off the court (his family) and on the court (starting with Pippen).

The lesson for the rest of us here is so very simple that it doesn’t need much explaining: in order to excel, surround yourself with the right people who will support you and make you shine (and who you can, in turn, support and make shine, too).


6. Have confidence in yourself.

MJ had supreme confidence in himself. Sure, he had the ridiculous talent to back up his confidence, but surely there are other basketball players who have natural abilities and determination who could have developed into superstars, too, but don’t. Why don’t more people rise to MJ’s level? Aside from his natural talent and his insane work ethic, he stood above the rest because of his confidence.

He oozed confidence throughout the entire documentary, but these two examples highlight it in the best way:

– When casually asked by a teammate who on the team he would want to take the last shot of a game, MJ scoffed at the question and immediately answered “me,” as if there was no other option.

– The Bulls led the Phoenix Suns three games to two in the best of seven NBA finals in 1993. Although they had two more games/chances to win the series, MJ only brought one post-game suit to Phoenix. Why? Because he had so much confidence in his team (but mostly, in himself) that they were going to win the series in six games, there would be no need for a game seven and, therefore, no need for a second post-game suit. And he was right.

What can we take from this? Have the confidence to know where you excel and when you are, unequivocally, the one who should take the last shot. And only bring one suit. It’s fine to have a Plan B, but there’s another level of confidence you bring to your game if you only have a Plan A and have the confidence in yourself that Plan A is all you need.


7. Always be present in the moment.

The value of being present in the moment is something we’ve all heard, but it’s worth repeating. One of the team staffers called being present in the moment MJ’s “gift.” Of all of his gifts on the basketball court, what stood out to this person the most was not his jump-shot or his defense, but his ability to just be. From hordes of reporters to his own teammates to trash-talking opponents, he was somehow able to zone out and tune out everything around him and just live in the moment. It’s part of what made him so great.

I admit living in the moment can be a tough one for me, as I suspect it is for lots of us. I often find myself thinking about what’s next or what used to be. Ending this post by saying “just live in the moment” seems disingenuous, as the question remains, how do you do this?

I don’t have the answer to this, as I’m working on this skill, too. While I’m not sure how MJ learned to live in the moment, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, here’s what I’m reading now: The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism, by Jean Smith and Wake Up: How to Practice Zen Buddhism, by Bonnie Myotai Treace. These books seemed like a great place to start. Let me know if you have other resources to share!


Michael Jordan Documentary or Tiger King?

Thanks to a strict lockdown with very few sports on TV and hardly any options to leave the apartment, I watched something I normally would never have been interested in, and I’m so glad I did. Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, definitely give this Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN a shot. Otherwise, you can always check out Tiger King if you haven’t already (while it was totally fascinating, I’m not so sure I could put together a post on seven lessons learned from that one!).

Have you watched the MJ documentary? Do you have any other favorite sports documentaries to recommend?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Wheel of Biglaw Life 

free guide

Sign up for access to the guide and emails related to all things life in and out of Biglaw! 

thank you!

* indicates required