In the midst of the NBA finals, following a string of awe-inspiring performances, 26-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked during a press conference how he keeps his mind right. His three-part answer, in his own words: “Focusing on the past is ego. Focusing on the future is pride. Focusing on the present is humility.”
What zen-master, and now also NBA champion, Giannis is saying, I think, is that when you are fully (or at least close to fully) in the present moment, you are automatically humbled.
Whatever happened in the past does not matter.
Whatever might happen in the future does not matter.
All that matters is this moment. All that matters is now.
If humility is about keeping your ego, or your sense of self, in check on the one hand; and being open to new experiences and information on the other, then releasing from the past and future in favor of being where you are is a great way to cultivate it.
There is research to support this, showing that humility and selflessness is a precursor to peak performance. Flow, that state of being “in the zone,” when everything is clicking, when time slows down, spaces opens up, and you are at your best, is most likely to occur when as little as possible gets between an actor and their act. That’s why a hallmark of flow is feeling as if you’re at one with what you’re doing, completely present. The less that gets in the way — doubt, worry, planning, and of course, pride and ego — the better. When people experience flow they often report a sense of selflessness and ensuing freedom and joy.
The same theme emerges across the perennial wisdom traditions. Enlightenment, nirvana, peace, the Tao, and so on are highly correlated with releasing from ego and pride in favor of being where you are right now. Perhaps the great paradox — and what Giannis so eloquently expressed with his words and shows with his game — is although we cling to our egos and our pride, we feel (and perform) best when we are able to release from them.
Knowing this is one thing, practicing it is another. Here, Giannis is yet again a great teacher. When asked why he shows up to games in sweatsuits instead of flashy suits and apparel, which is common, if not ubiquitous, in the NBA, Giannis explained, “I just want to win. All that other stuff takes away from the game, and you just spend extra energy on looking good for five seconds. I don’t care about that. I just want to look good on the court. Get the win and go back home and lay on my couch and just watch game film. That’s it.” In other words, define what matters to you and ignore the noise. So much of what feeds ego and pride is noise. So much of what feeds presence and humility is ignoring it, over and over again.
(For more on lessons from Giannis check out this Growth Eq podcast episode where we deconstruct what makes him great.)