The Last Dance

Basketball, Entrepreneurship and Acting

Being an artist is like playing basketball. And most of us get being an artist wrong the way most of us get playing basketball wrong. 

This is something a high school phys-ed teacher of mine pointed out about basketball. A game’s an hour. Let’s assume your team’s on offense for an even half of the game and on defense for an even half. That’s thirty minutes each. 

Each team has five players on the floor. Let’s assume that when your team’s on offense, you’ve got the ball as much as any of your teammates. So that’s thirty minutes of offense divided by five players: six minutes of ball-handling for you. 

By those numbers, you’re five times more likely to be on defense than to be handling the ball. And you’re four times more likely on offense to be supporting other players than to be shooting a basket. And even when you have the ball, there’s plenty of dribbling and running and passing and other things you need to do to put yourself in the position to take a shot. 

But get a bunch of people hanging around a basketball court and what are they doing? Shooting hoops! Jump shots and lay-ups and three-pointers and half court shots - often doing their own play-by-play and ‘audience roars for their game-winning basket’ as they go.  Instagram is full of people who do amazing things with a basketball - on an empty court with nobody to guard them.

All the focus goes on the thing you’re least likely to be doing. Why? Because that’s the fun part. That’s where all the glory is. 

Most of us get in the arts with one place we want to be: in the spotlight. In the zone. Shining. This also applies to startups.  Founders want to be featured in TechCrunch.  They want an investor to cut that obscenely large check that will launch their startup into the stratosphere.  Some even dress like Steve Jobs. My Crunchbase digest is full of news about companies valued at x or products that raised x millions of dollars.  Fancy jumpshots. That stuff is great, but it shouldn’t be the focus.

The business side - that’s defense. Marketing, networking, producing, admin - all the endless admin… 

And there’s the non-glorious part of being an artist: pitching, auditioning, rehearsing, memorizing, tech rehearsals, playing supporting roles and walk-ons - that’s the dribbling and running and passing and learning new plays.  The fundamentals.  For entrepreneurs it’s usually failing, rebuilding, falling on your face, feeling inadequate or resisting ‘success theatre’ when you intro yourself on another ‘please kill me now’ zoom call...ensuring you create something somebody wants in a way that adds significant value.

For all the focus on superstars, basketball’s a team sport. The dunks that wind up on a highlight reel don’t happen without a network of support. Michael Jordan spent half of every game playing defense, like anyone else. If he couldn’t, he wouldn’t have been a star. 

For all the focus on the ‘Elon Musks’ and the ‘Larry Ellisons’, there’s no such thing as a startup with one person.  It’s a team sport.

We want to be so good that we’re playing lead roles, roles that were offered to us without auditioning, roles that were created with us in mind. We dream of having a personal assistant or a manager or a support staff taking care of all the business stuff so we can sink one three point shot after another. 

You might get there. But even then, there’s all the other stuff. 

So work on the fundamentals. Do the grunt work. Build up your muscles. Do all of the things that’ll keep you in the right shape so that when it comes time to get in the game, you’re ready and able. You’ll contribute whether it’s you in the highlight reel or not. You’ll be an important part of every point your team scores. 

And most importantly, you’ll be someone you can be proud of, regardless of the outcome.

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