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'If You Fail Today, It Doesn't Mean You're Going to Fail Tomorrow'

The Daily Coach caught up with Dr. Michael S. Lewis to discuss lessons from his Chicago Bulls tenure, battling impostor syndrome, and his friendship with famed psychologist Abraham Maslow.

It was moments before tipoff — and Michael Jordan was standing in the United Center hallway in pain.

Severe neck spasms inhibited his range of motion, and it seemed doubtful he could even compete that night.

"Why don’t you just sit out?”, team physician Dr. Michael S. Lewis asked, noting that 99 out of 100 NBA players would have.

“Fans have come from hundreds of miles away to see me," Jordan responded.

Not only did Jordan play, he scored 25 points in his team's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

To this day, Lewis describes it as a "superhuman-type performance."

As a Bulls team doctor, Lewis had a front-row seat to one of the most fascinating cultures in sports history. He also worked with the Chicago White Sox as an orthopedic consultant and at a variety of hospitals in the Chicago area.

The Daily Coach caught up with him recently to discuss lessons from his Bulls tenure, battling impostor syndrome, and his friendship with famed psychologist Abraham Maslow.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Dr. Lewis, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us about your childhood and some lessons from it.

I grew up in Houston in the 1950s. It was really special because there was a sense of unlimited possibilities, a frontier spirit. When I was 11 years old, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. How momentous that was might not register today, but at the time, scientists had concluded that was physiologically impossible.

Another event was the first ascent of Mt. Everest. Then, there was man on the moon. These events were very powerful and demonstrated the possibilities of human achievement.

My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and very hard working. My grandfather would always say, “Be a self-made man. Get an education. No one can take it away from you.” My father owned a jewelry store and never missed a day of work. His message was, “No one’s going to wake you up in the morning and give you a pep talk. Get your act together.” I learned responsibility and following his example.

How did sports come into your life?

When I was in junior high school, I was the tallest person in my class and was very fast. The high school football coach was aware of this and said if I came out, I’d be an all-city halfback. My parents were not overjoyed for their precious, skinny kid with braces and tried to bribe me with a used car if I didn’t play football.

Tryouts were the first day of August. It was 110 degrees. There were 100 of us in full uniform. We ran wind sprints all day. At that point, they didn’t understand heat stroke and you were a sissy if you drank water. They wanted to separate the men from the boys. The next day, there were 40 men who showed up, and I was not one of them. There I was, first year of high school, no car, no admiring cheerleaders, no halfback trophy. It was horrible for a 15-year-old.

But I think one of the life lessons is that if you fail today, it doesn’t mean you’re going to fail tomorrow. The door that opened for me was the debate team. I’d be up all night preparing, and our coach would say, “It’s not good enough.” I felt like the other students were smarter and more talented than I was. My only chance was to outwork them.

I also ran track and had a coach who pushed me to a higher standard — and it was life changing. If you pulled a hamstring or had an issue with the young girl you were in love with, whatever your problem was, you had one solution: Tape it up and run it out. Don’t make excuses.

You end up going to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where famed psychologist Abraham Maslow became one of your mentors. How did he influence you?

When I got to Brandeis, I was a scared, directionless 18-year-old. Abraham Maslow was one of my professors. He was world famous and is still extremely influential. At the time, the field of psychology was dominated by Sigmund Freud. He formed the theory of personality and motivation by studying his patients, who were primarily psychotic and neurotic people.

Maslow came up with this radical idea of “Let’s look at the person we most admire and see if we come up with a different theory of motivation." This was so exciting and just made so much sense to try to be like someone you most admire.

I was just a blank slate at the time, and this was a worthy direction. I spent a lot of time with him and majored in psychology and one day he said to me, “Somebody’s going to make an important impact in the field. Why shouldn’t it be you?” The power of a coach and teacher planting an idea in you can change the world and give you confidence you didn’t necessarily have.

You work for years in different cities and different hospitals. Then, in 1996, the opportunity with the Bulls comes around. Even with your vast experience, did you have any doubts or insecurities when you started working with the team?

I think no matter how successful you are, an element of impostor syndrome is what pushes you higher. Why would Michael Jordan or Carlton Fisk, who are the most talented athletes I worked with, push even higher? To oversimplify, it’s impostor syndrome. “I’ve got to try harder. Maybe I don’t deserve to be here. I’ve got to improve myself.”

As soon as I found out I would be one of the team doctors, I literally read every book I could on basketball. I read a book on how to shoot free throws. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning and read for three hours. At the same time, there is a balance between impostor syndrome and also having a certain amount of confidence that I can do this. I think you need both.

What were your biggest takeaways from your time around Phil Jackson?

He had many important qualities. One, he had the credibility of having championship rings as a player with the New York Knicks. Secondly, he had undergone spinal surgery and knew what playing hurt was and recovering from surgery was. And, he had been an assistant coach for many years before he joined the Bulls. He had paid his dues.

I think you hear coaches say all the time, “You’ve got to treat all players the same. If you treat the superstar differently, that’s going to have a negative impact.” My experience with Phil Jackson was he had a very high EQ, emotional quotient. He knew exactly what buttons to push for each individual, and I can promise you the buttons he pushed for Michael Jordan were not the same he pushed for Dennis Rodman.

He loved the expression “The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.” Wherever we went, there were thousands of people and so many distractions — and he was able to keep the team unified through all of that.

You shared the Jordan injury anecdote. What else about him stood out to you the most?

Michael Jordan's Bulls teams were in 179 playoff games during his career. He played in 179. It's extraordinary. Everyone has minor injuries and plenty of excuses all the time. People don't realize the level of obligation he felt to fans of the game.

Another time, we were in the training room when the alleged killers of his father came on the TV. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. His father was his best friend, and he spent a lot of time with him. I interpreted his reaction as spending an ounce of energy at that moment thinking about his father’s killers wasn’t going to bring his father back. He needed to focus on the game that night. That, to me, was a profound example of his extraordinary capacity to put distractions aside and focus on the task at hand.

Want to shift to your post Bulls career. You’ve written several books and just released a new one, “Getting Wiser.” What do you hope readers take from it?

One lesson in it is in overcoming adversity. It's from Thomas Kirk, who was a fighter pilot in Vietnam and Korea. He was shot down and was in the notorious Hanoi Hilton for six years. He was tortured and in solitary confinement for two. He didn’t speak to a soul, no books to read. After his experience, he told me he immediately forgave his captors. In his words, they were fighting for a cause they believed in, and he was fighting for a cause he believed in. He went back a few years later and helped them with their farming.

Another example in the book is Geoffrey Tabin, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford and a close friend. He’s climbed Mt. Everest and the peak of seven continents. But maybe more importantly, he’s gone around the world and done literally thousands and thousands of cataract surgeries and has taught the local doctors how to do them. People who have been blind for years can suddenly see perfectly. The profits from all of my books go to the Himalayan Cataract Project.

For a long period of time, I felt inadequate when I compared myself to friends such as Geoffrey, who has literally impacted the lives of thousands of people. But one day I had a powerful insight: my job was to be the best Michael Lewis I could be, not a poor imitation of Geoff Tabin.

As Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken." A huge weight suddenly was lifted from my shoulders.

Q&A Resources

Dr. Michael S. Lewis ― Website | Book: Getting Wiser | Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram