“James Harden sucks.” We’ve heard a lot of that in the week after he scored a career-high 45 points in a playoff game.
I have some thoughts on that accusation.
Those who don’t do work that involves some kind of public performance—or who do it but are not honest with themselves—don’t realize how varied our performance can be from one day or even one moment to another.
Bill Russell wrote about this in his wonderful (second) auto-biography, Second Wind, which I read in my early twenties and has influenced me in many ways since.
Russell said that after every game he gave himself a grade based on how well he performed, and reviewed things he did well and did not do well. IIRC he said that he averaged about a B.
When I started teaching, I did the same thing. My teaching was almost done in a seminar format. if you’ve ever done that you know how hard it is to teach in that style. To do it well, you need to be thinking about each question you ask students and how to respond to their answers with another question or by calling on a different student. You have to know when to interject an idea or an example or let the conversation continue.
And you have to do that in a way that keeps the conversation going in a natural way while also focusing on the key topics you wanted to cover during the session. And, at the same time, you want students to understand how what you are talking about in this session connects with previous sessions and the themes of the course as a whole.
My goal was for each class to be snappy and exciting and to bring the students to an important set of ideas, or even a revelation that leaves them wanting more.
I got pretty good at teaching this way. But still, on average, I graded myself a B. Some classes were a lot worse. They lagged, students were quiet, and not much of interest happened. Sometimes they were just average. There were good and bad moments. Students learned something and conversations were good. But there were slow points and no sense of excitement.
But sometimes things sparkled.
Whether the class or not was good wasn’t entirely due to me. I discovered that especially in very small classes of 6 or less, the makeup of the class played a major role in whether the class went well.
I once taught two sections of the same course, with six students in each section, one before dinner and one after. The one after dinner was always great. The one before dinner was always slow and lagging. I thought that maybe I was better after practicing once, so one time I just switched the time for the two classes. And now the afternoon one was great and the evening one terrible. Weirdly enough, the students in the bad class all became friends of mine. But they just were silent in class.
So when classes went wrong, that wasn’t all my fault. But with a larger number of students, the variation in students from class to class was not as big a factor, and whether a particular session went well had more to do with me.
Truth be told, sometimes I was really good. I was sharp, attentive, and good responses that moved the class along well came to me quickly. And sometimes I really bad. I was slow, found it hard to concentrate, and struggled to say something that contributed to a good class.
And what was true in my classroom is true in almost every endeavor where we perform in real time. It was true in politics. When I ran for office in 2004 and 2007 I often gave really good speeches. And sometimes I just bombed.
It’s true in music. I have a large number of Miles Davis bootlegs of live concerts. There are some in which he just didn’t have it. His lip was not in good shape and his sound was weak and he couldn’t hit the phrases he tried for. And some days he was uninspired and played stock phrases that I had heard many times. And more
often than not he was wonderful.
And that’s certainly true in sports. No player, not even the great ones, has great games every night out.
Their performances vary, often a great deal, from game to game. There are days we are sharp. Days we are slow. Maybe it’s how we slept or how we ate or whether we got a bug (or are getting over one or are about to get one.) Maybe we are upset about something happening in some other area of our life–a worry about our children or a fight with our wife. Maybe it’s a concern about the world around us.
Maybe we are a bit overconfident one day. Or lacking in confidence.
Whatever it is, we have good days and bad ones. All of us, no matter how good we are on average.
Next time you are tempted to say, on the basis of one or two games, that some NBA player “sucks” or has “lost it,” remember that variation in performance is a fact of human nature.
So don’t be so quick to judge or make rash judgments.
And be glad that you don’t do your work out in public where everyone can see you. Because I can assure you that just like Miles, James Harden, and me, there are days where you really sucked too.