I can literally go all season without watching a single game of basketball. But when May & June roll around, I have a poltergeist-style pull to the NBA Playoffs. Whatever the draw is for playoff time, my basketball self comes alive, and I’m completely on board. Every year, there are new moments of awe and inspiration. And every now and then, you see something that changes your perspective on people, on teamwork, on leadership, and even life.
One such moment came in Lebron James’ first full season with the Miami Heat. This was the year that was supposed to change basketball forever. When Lebron decided to “take his talents to South Beach,” and play with a loaded team, many feared this was going to take all the thrill out of competition. And as scheduled, the mighty Miami Heat cruised through the regular season and playoffs. It seemed that their NBA Finals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks would also be little more than an afterthought.
But the Heat would soon find out they should have saved that afterthought for afterwards.
Miami took Game One with little resistance. In Game Two it looked like the same old song and dance. 8 minutes to go, Miami was already leading, and they got another steal. Wade hits the open court, jukes his man, and dunks backwards. This was just too easy. Then…it happened.
On the way back up the court, Lebron and D-Wade were thumping chests, nodding confidently, like the series was already wrapped up. And all logic would have agreed with the two superstars. They were better. They were younger. They had the old dogs by their throats. But there were 8 minutes left. And according to Dallas’ Jason Terry, “nobody likes a showboat.”
The door was still open, and they had just rattled the cage. Bad move. The cranky old men from Dallas came back to win that game, and eventually the series.
Perhaps the truest arena for these kinds of tales is in the business world. There’s nothing wrong with a little optimism. But popping the cork after a couple of wins isn’t going to net you anything but gross disappointment. The problem with celebrating too early, too long, or too recklessly, might seem like a matter of class. But really, it’s a matter of focus.
When you’re winning, you are focused on doing what has gotten your company to this point. When you’re celebrating, you are focused on the spoils you received for doing what you did. And if you’re celebrating too early, you are focusing on spoils you think are as good as yours. Do that too much, and you’ll be crying over spoils that are as good as gone. Don’t believe us? Ask MC Hammer. Ask Kanye West. Ask Bernie Kosar. Ask the 1986 Boston Red Sox. Ask the 1996 Atlanta Braves. Ask Lebron James and the 2010-2011 Miami Heat.
When you celebrate prematurely, you risk angering your opponents. You risk isolating your leadership. You take all the little tiny slants that need to go in your favor in order to succeed, and you flip them all against you. The ease with which you stroll after an intense, uphill, bike ride is acceptable…when it’s appropriate. Strolling before you make it to the top the hill is maybe not the best idea. Strolling at the top of the hill seems acceptable. Right? But if you still have more hills to go, you might not want to stroll for too long. Or at all. Here’s why.
Imagine if you kept your nose to the grindstone, even when things were going well. What if you put your head down, and kept pedaling with the same furious force as when you were climbing your last hill? Imagine how much speed you could pick up on the way down. That way, when you hit the next hill, you’d be halfway up before you even felt resistance.
For years, I wondered why the business world often felt like a back and forth struggle between “working 40 hours and getting paid for 4” and “working 4 hours and getting paid for 40.” I hated the first week. I felt like a bullet-proof tiger the 2nd week. In hindsight, I was too short-sighted to see the next hill. Many small businesses, especially when they experience periods of growth, fall deeply in love with the feeling of accomplishment. Working 40 figurative hours to only produce 4 hours of pay shouldn’t bother us. That’s not the mistake. The mistake comes from working 4, taking the check for 40, and feeling like this is the new standard practice.
Every business likes to say “we made it!” But guess what? You haven’t made it. You’ve got another hill, 10 feet from the bottom of this hill. So set your future sights on the spot that’s right after the upturn of your next challenge. Take all the momentum you have, and keep pedaling. Don’t unstrap your feet. Don’t take off your helmet. Don’t unwrap a granola bar. And above all else, don’t pop the cork on the victory champagne. Not yet. We’re nowhere near the finish line.
In fact, there’s still 8 minutes left in Game 2.