As many will know, Wilt Chamberlain is considered one of the greatest basketball players to ever live. He even once accomplished the unthinkable, scoring one hundred points in a single game! However, like many seven-foot-tall basketball players, he was a horrendous free throw shooter, averaging one season at about 38%. His career average was also abysmal at 51%. How in the world can one of the best basketball players to ever live only hit 51% of his shots from just fifteen feet away while no one was attempting to block him? Clearly there are some mind games at play, but not all of them follow the rules you would expect.
What will likely didn’t know is that Wilt Chamberlain actually knew how to improve his free throw shooting. He had even proven it worked, too. He just chose not to do it. Surprised?
In order improve his free throw percentage, Wilt Chamberlain took the advice of Rick Barry (another NBA all-time great) and shot the ball underhand, the same way you may have seen done in the movie Hoosiers. This drastically improved his percentage and eliminated a major weakness in his game for almost an entire season, which turned out to be his career best at 61% (This season also included that 100 point game, a game during which Chamberlain hit 28 of 32 free throws. However, the very next season, he decided to go back to shooting overhand, resuming his awful performance. What world class performer would do this?
Later, Wilt agreed he should have kept shooting underhand but just didn’t. He knew what was best for him. He knew what was the right choice. He simply didn’t make it. Shaquille O’Neal, another famously bad free throw shooter, said he would rather shoot 0% on his free throws than ever shoot underhand. These players were more worried about peer pressure and perception than they were about their results.
How often do we make the same decisions in the workplace and in our business? We know that making an extra sales call will yield better numbers. We know that engaging our employees hearts and minds will improve turnover and retention. We are fully aware that attention to detail and transparency with both customers and employees will create healthier business.
But sometimes, even though we are fully aware it does not make sense, we simply don’t do these things. There are myriad reasons why, but the most common is that we don’t want to make a decision that we perceive in our heads to be unpopular or difficult. We take the easier road. I challenge you to make the decisions that will get you greater results, not what will make your life easier.
When you look back at the careers of Rick Barry and Wilt Chamberlain it is unquestionable who was the better basketball player. However, what is most striking, and somewhat sad in retrospect, is that you could convincingly argue that Rick Barry was the best basketball player he was capable of being, underhand free throws and all, while Wilt Chamberlain, as good as he was, never lived up to his full potential. Unrealized potential is one of life’s great tragedies. Can you say the same about your business career?
***To end this post, I want to begin with a simple recommendation. If you don’t listen to the podcast This American Life, you should. I am saying nothing groundbreaking as it is one of the top downloaded podcasts in the country, but for those of you that have not yet discovered the wonderful world that is podcasts, go check it out, as that is the source of the material for this post. This American Life featured the story from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, another gem.