There is a moment during every Sunday Night Football game when I feel this little bit of anxiety starts to creep up in my stomach. It’s usually right around the two-minute warning, and it doesn’t matter which teams are playing, I just want the score to be tied. I’m like those fans in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial; I’m hoping for a little bit of overtime so I can delay starting the homework assignment that hasn’t been due in five years.
But my stomach still thinks something is due tomorrow morning. It’s muscle memory at this point because—from about seventh grade through college—there were plenty of projects, essays, and cramming for tests that happened in those midnight hours between Sunday Night Football and Monday morning’s class.
The most memorable battles were the ones I had with my required Spanish class in college. See, picking up a second language has always been a struggle for me. I couldn’t figure it out in middle school, couldn’t make sense of it in high school either. But it was always required to graduate. I finally thought I was in the clear holding the high school diploma, but there I was again at college, required to at least get a D- in a second language.
I chose Spanish because I figured those K-12 struggles would give me at least some type of a head start. It’s the same logic that makes me believe I could sail a boat because I took naps on my parents’ boat as a kid.
Hope College gave us two options for the Spanish requirement:
Option A: Take Spanish 1.0 first semester, then Spanish 2.0 the second semester. Little bit slower pace, kind of like a Wisconsin Big 10 basketball game.
Option B: Combine Spanish 1.0 and Spanish 2.0 all into one semester; knock it out in 16 weeks, but do it all at a Golden State Warriors pace.
I chose Option B. So my significant nemesis that semester was “Quia” homework. Quia was a week’s worth of online quizzes due Monday morning. The Sunday Night Football game would end, I’d go up to the dorm’s computer lab, and get to work. And it was always a mess. I would buy this gallon jug of Tropicana brain juice, one of those Omega-3/blueberry/pomegranate combos and hope that would turn me into Javier Bardem.
Heading into the final exam, I was right on the verge of failing. It was my collegiate 0-3 deficit. I wasn’t going to comeback and win the series, but I couldn’t get swept. I needed to cram for this final test, and at least make it a respectable defeat.
Our teacher set up the final as an oral exam, and she did the pairs entirely by overall grades going into the finals. The premise of the oral exam was to have a conversation with her entirely in Spanish. So the first couple was the two students sitting there with 100 percent A’s in the class. Their oral exam morphed into like a pleasant conversation at a Tapas bar in Barcelona discussing the literary motifs of Don Quixote.
But when she snaked through the rest of the class roster, finally reaching the other person and me at the bottom, ours was a disaster. It was like a first date where both people didn’t want to be there, and they were told to speak in a different language. My partner decided to go with a “Plead the Fifth” strategy, just sat there in silence. In retrospect, it wasn’t a terrible move. Stay silent, and there can be no mistakes. It wasn’t any worse than my strategy of answering each question with, “Um, nosotros, uh, nosotros.”
My brain juice procrastination led to results typically associated with waiting too long to study. It’s why essays the night before have grammar mistakes or why it’d seem crazy for a medical or law student to just roll out of bed for their final exam.
But for every one of these procrastinating fail stories, I’ll think of times when waiting until the last minute worked out surprisingly well. Like when I’ve seen my wife choreograph a dance on a car ride, perform it a couple of hours later, and it turns out great. People will come up after and say, “That was amazing! How long did that take to prepare?” Or when we go see the Improvised Shakespeare company at the iO in Chicago; that group performs procrastination to the extreme. They don’t memorize lines; they don’t have a show planned out at all. They go onstage, ask the audience to shout out anything, and that’s it. Start from there. And it ends up being better than almost any scripted performance I’ve ever seen.
Or what about LeBron James in the NBA Playoffs. Over the last ten years, the guy has found himself on the verge of elimination numerous times. He’s faced 3-2, 3-1, and this year a 3-0 deficit, and choose the sports cliche of your choice, “his back’s against the wall,” “he’s on the ropes,” but yet it’s this type of series procrastination that often works out in his favor. He plays at an even higher level when he’s running out of time.
How is this possible? Is procrastination a super flaw or a super power?
Let’s start with LeBron
I’m writing this before Game 5 of the NBA Finals, fresh off the Cavaliers’ historical performance in Game 4 where they kept the series alive, avoided the sweep, and gave at least a shred of hope for Cleveland fans that we’re all about to witness the greatest comeback in NBA history. Hey, it was 3-1 last year when the Cavs took over the series; it’s 3-1 right now.
But Game 5 back at Golden State could be the end of the series. It might even be a blowout. That’s more probable than Cleveland winning three more in a row. But the thing is, no matter what happens on Monday night, it doesn’t damage LeBron’s elimination game legacy.
Here’s why. In 19 career playoff elimination games (the times when the other team has three wins in the series, only needs one more to close out), LeBron is now 11-8. Two times he’s been down 3-2 to a team that has multiple Hall-of-Famers who have won at least one title (Boston and San Antonio) and comeback to win the series. He’s 2-0 in NBA Finals Game 7’s and last year he led the first ever NBA Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit; which is even more incredible given the team he beat four-out-of-seven that had won an all-time NBA best 73 out of 82 during the regular season.
Even his 4-1 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder started with a Game 1 loss.
It gets even more impressive at the individual stat line. Here are LeBron’s averages in those 19 games:
45 minutes per game, 32.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 7.3 apg
How can he do more than that? Those numbers are more than Michael Jordan and more than Wilt Chamberlain. I say Game 5 of this series has no impact because—even if he scored zero points—he would still be averaging close to 31 ppg in these elimination scenarios.
And maybe even crazier than those numbers above is the percentage of his team’s points that he either scores or assists on in these elimination games. Using a conservative number of an assist being worth two points (even though a lot of LeBron’s passes go to made threes) if we add that to his points-per-game, LeBron accounts for 46.7 percent of his team’s points in these games. Almost half!
Even the stain on his career, that 2011 Dallas Mavericks series, which is like the irremovable lower back tattoo that is still referenced by ardent LBJ naysayers even in that elimination game LeBron put up a 40 minute, 21 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists game. An outlier by LeBron’s regular standards, but consider those numbers against these two performances that were enough to win NBA Finals MVP:
Chauncey Billups 2004: 38.4 mpg, 21.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.2 apg
Andre Iguodala 2015: 37.1 mpg, 16.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.0 apg
And all of that was a pretty deep dive into the statistical weeds, so let me sail the ship back to the overall question of this article. I mean obviously LeBron’s not trying to get into these deficits (or at least I think he’s not), but is it possible that he becomes a better player the more he “procrastinates?”
Enter Martin Luther King Jr.
In Adam Grant’s must-read book Originals, which is the driving inspiration of this whole post, Grant tells a surprising story about Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech: MLK was kind of winging it.
During the address, King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson shouted from behind him, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” He continued with his script, and she encouraged him again. Before a live crowd of 250,000, and millions more watching on TV, King improvised, pushing his notes aside and launching into his inspiring vision of the future. “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones,” Clarence Jones reflects, “Martin winged it.” (page 100)
Grant references Drew Hansen’s book, “The Dream” where, again, it shows Martin Luther King Jr. doing some extreme last minute adjustments.
“Just before King spoke,” Hansen writes. “He was crossing out lines and scribbling new ones as he awaited his turn. It looked like King was still editing the speech until he walked to the podium to deliver it.” (page 101-102)
And how about Abraham Lincoln
When I think about the two most famous speeches in American history, I’d say it’s probably a tie between MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and then Abe Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Grant reveals another surprise: Lincoln procrastinated as well.
Lincoln ultimately didn’t write the closing paragraph until the night before the speech, and it was the morning of the speech before he finalized it. He waited because he wanted to develop the most compelling theme (page 98)
But doesn’t procrastinating or “winging it” set you up to make mistakes? What about that Spanish Quia homework or the oral exam? Time to fast forward to Warby Parker
Warby Parker shows up a lot in Originals. And then here in this article “The Mistake that Turned Warby Parker Into an Overnight Legend” by Inc. writer Graham Winfrey, we find out how they rushed their website through production because they didn’t realize their big feature article in GQ Magazine was coming out February 15th rather than sometime in March.
On February 15, 2010, WarbyParker.com went live. Within 48 hours of GQ’s dubbing the company the “Netflix of eyewear,” the site was so flooded with orders for $95 glasses that Blumenthal (Co-Founder, Co-CEO) temporarily suspended the home try-on program.
Winfrey goes on to point out that the initial rushed site “hadn’t included a sold-out function” and the waitlist was “20,000 people long.”
“It was this moment of panic, but also a great opportunity for us to provide awesome customer service and write personalized emails to apologize and explain,” Blumenthal says. “That really set the tone for how we would run customer service.”
The mistake turned into a positive. It’s like how nobody remembers Game 4 for the two turnover mistakes LeBron James committed. We remember the 31-10-11. The Cavs’ 49 point first quarter. The 86 first half points. The 137-116 final score.
So then why even prepare?
Here’s the secret, all of these examples (minus the Spanish homework) involved a career of preparation. Grant points out that in the year of the “dream” speech “it is estimated that [Martin Luther King Jr.] traveled over 275,000 miles and delivered over 350 speeches” and so “he had a wealth of material at his disposal that he could draw upon extemporaneously, which made his delivery more authentic.” (page 102-103)
Lincoln also had given hundreds of speeches before and had been thinking about this particular one for a couple of weeks, just hadn’t started writing right away. The Warby Parker guys had been learning business practices at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The members of Improvised Shakespeare Company have performed hundreds of shows and spent years climbing the Chicago Improv ranks before they step out and ask for a crowd suggestion.
The reason it didn’t work for my Spanish tests is I hadn’t put in any work before those Sunday nights (besides buying borderline helpful brain juice.) The medical student or law student who waits to scan over a few notes the night before can still do well on the test only if they’ve been learning everything the entire time. In that case, the night before the exam becomes no different than like a random Tuesday in October.
In elimination games, LeBron James taps into years of basketball knowledge and experience. He’s learned that sometimes his team needs him to put up 45, but other times they need him to get 10-12 assists, get everyone else involved. A lot of times they’ll need both. He’s learned the little things too, like how Hall-of-Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett taught him the power of intimidation, sometimes you gotta say no more Mr. Nice Guy on the basketball court. Somewhere in him, this lesson was activated when he got up in Kevin Durant’s face in Game 4. It felt like LeBron (and Kyrie) were regaining control of the series.
With procrastination, there’s always the possibility that the hole is too deep to climb out of. But it’s still worth a shot. Next time you get in trouble for procrastinating, just say you’re pulling a LeBron James.
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