I've always been fascinated by the way top athletes use their doubters and critics as fuel for their fires. You know the tale: Michael Jordan gets cut from his high school team, only to roar back the next year, make the team, then go on to become the best basketball player in the world, if not the universe. (We'll never know for sure about the latter. Thanks, Looney Tunes ... )
That one high school moment so affected MJ that he even mentioned it during his Hall of Fame speech. HIS HALL OF FAME SPEECH! At that point in his career, he had literally zero things to prove to anyone. But there he was, still thinking about that seemingly insignificant life setback.
Because it drove him. It got him to where he is today. It helped him hit the gym when everyone else hit the bars. It prompted him to add new skills to his repertoire each offseason when everyone else remained stuck in their ways. It drove him to outwork and outthink and outcompete his opponents night in and night out during what became one of the most remarkable careers ever.
All that is because, rather than shrugging off, tuning out, or "getting over" the moments when others doubted him, Jordan quietly filed them away in the back of his mind and used them to his own gain later. With each new critic or critique came a new impetus to drive forward or muscle through the day to day routine in order to build a truly special career. By recalling his own setbacks and haters, Jordan and really, all top athletes add serious fuel to their fires.
I LOVE that. I've always loved that about sports. These grandiose, emotionally charged ideals are a major reason I focused my college career on sports journalism.
Applying This to Our Own Careers
We all face our own haters from time to time, whether due to the natural course of a long career or because we as creators are constantly putting ourselves out there for the scrutiny of audiences both internal and external.
As a result, I think we could all benefit from having our own private lists of haters to fuel us.
This realization recently hit me right in the face thanks to a conversation with a former colleague. As we caught up, she complimented my work she'd seen me do since we parted ways: "Dude! You're everywhere lately, congrats! I don't know how you do it."
Now, many who know me know that I'm both a sincerely nice guy and largely disgusted by the self-aggrandizement and "Twitterization" of our behavior in the digital age. In other words, you'd expect my reaction to my friend's compliment to be a simple yet kind, "Thanks, that was nice of you to say."
But it wasn't. Buried in her very nice, very genuine statement was something else, something she couldn't have known she was saying: She hadn't seen this level work from me before. She wasn't surprised, per se, but she was certainly signaling that this was all new territory.
And all I could think was, You're damn straight I'm doing good work!
If anything, rather than gratitude, I felt vindicated. I felt like I'd proved something to someone. But to whom?
Ah, that's right, I thought -- to a hater that I'd previously buried in my mind.
Maybe Burying or Ignoring Haters Is the Wrong Approach
In speaking with that friend and analyzing my own bizarre-yet-visceral reaction, I remembered that she and I worked together during a time I felt burned by an employer. Whether they didn't believe in me, didn't use me the right way, or just didn't set expectations properly when I was hired, my longterm thinking and apolitical nature just didn't jibe with the company's unwelcoming, short-term culture.
So of course, at that time, I felt burned, and I left and tried not to think about how angry I felt. I just moved forward, the same person with the same ideas and ideals, doing work of which I knew I was always capable.
However, I'd effectively just heard my friend compare that past with my present. Without knowing or intending it, she'd suddenly torn open a scab.
See?! I told you so! And I'm not done proving them wrong yet!
Is This Really the Right Mentality?
Especially in our business of creating things online, the more you put yourself out there and the better you become at the work, the greater the chance of some haters emerging becomes.
So thanks to that fateful conversation, I started revisiting my haters in my head again. And it's been ... oddly great.
I've felt myself working harder. A lot harder. Whenever I'm feeling tired, or lazy, or uninspired, or even if I start to doubt myself, I rush back to that time in my head. And I suddenly reach a higher gear. I feel mad like my past self felt mad, sure, but only briefly. Above all else, I feel hungry. I feel like I'd run through a brick wall if only to prove myself and produce the best work of which I'm capable.
Now, my psychologist (aka, my wife, who is also an actual psychologist) would probably deem this more than a little unhealthy, but a professional win for me has become equal parts, "Heck yes!" and, "I told you so!" And though I'm no professional athlete, I've read or written about enough of them to know that the latter "told you so" reaction is important to trigger from time to time.
Don't misunderstand: I know most of that is fabricated. The same could be said of the little hit list in the minds of Jordan or Kobe or Jeter or Muhammad Ali. It's the same motivating factor behind every great athlete who ascended to the top of their sport, because that level of greatness requires an innate will to succeed, even if fueled by some fiction.
Yes, my biggest sports heroes don't just remember their haters, they magnify them. Like the jilted high school boyfriend dumped by the popular girl, they concoct a grander narrative for what it all meant. And I know I'm guilty of doing the same.
But man, do these fabrications fuel an authentic fire.
After all, when the press declares LeBron the best basketball player today, Kobe doesn't just shrug and go, "No, no, they're making valid points."
When people said Derek Jeter was washed up, he wouldn't suddenly consider retirement a bit more seriously.
When Becky Hammon set out to become the first female NBA coach, she didn't leave interviews accepting corporate excuses like, "She's just not a culture fit here."
These people don't accept things at face value. They don't live by a set of rules they saw tweeted by some industry blogger one time. They write their own rules, and their haters are their collective Muse.
They work harder. They improve themselves. They prove themselves.
So, in closing: Thank you, haters.
Thank you for making me a better writer, a better leader, a better entrepreneur, a better creative, a better mentor, a better employee ... and just plain better.
Thank you for being the reason I work when others play.
Thank you for being the reason I take risks where many trot out the same, tired garbage in my industry.
Thank you for always being there when I need you the most.
You are my knight in shit-stained armor. My darkness in the light. My user and abuser who (still) makes me feel like a loser.