I grew up in Chicago in the 90s, and that meant being a basketball fan. We were blessed with the presence of a dominant group of basketball stars on the Chicago Bulls — Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B. J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, and of course the inimitable Michael Jordan. Every child wanted to “be like Mike.” He was the supreme superstar and the Bulls brought home multiple championships throughout the decade. At the helm of those championship teams was Phil Jackson.
Jackson is renowned for his unorthodox approach to sports leadership. He had a singular talent for bringing together teams and getting them to “buy in” to a bigger cause and set aside their egos. I once asked a supervisor of mine for a recommendation of a book on leadership, and he surprised me by recommending Jackson’s book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. In the book, Jackson chronicles his time in Chicago and Los Angeles, coaching the Bulls and Lakers, respectively. Jackson coached superstars like Pippen, Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant, bringing together some of the greatest players (and biggest egos) in basketball.
Jackson blends his love of reading (he gives out personalized selections of books to his players) with his interest in eastern spirituality to create a zen philosophy of basketball. Basketball is a game of free flow and instinct. There’s discipline required, though: a great team will always beat out a collection of great individuals who happen to wear the same uniform. But year to year and game to game and minute to minute, basketball is a game of changes. How a team adjusts to those changes means the difference between victory and defeat, being champions or losers, being a dynasty or a one-time success.
I’ve been thinking lately of all the changes coming to libraries in the wake of the pandemic. Staffing models are shifting, programs are being rethought, and services are being re-imagined. A lesson from zen Buddhism in Jackson’s book stands out as prescient for the current context in libraries:
Zen teacher Lewis Richmond tells the story of hearing Shunryu Suzuki sum up Buddhism in two words. Suzuki had just finished giving a talk to a group of Zen students when someone in the audience said, “You’ve been talking about Buddhism for nearly an hour, and I haven’t been able to understand a thing you said. Could you say one thing about Buddhism I can understand?” After the laughter died down, Suzuki replied calmly, “Everything changes.” Those words, Suzuki said, contain the basic truth of existence: Everything is always in flux. Until you accept this, you won’t be able to find true equanimity.Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Everything changes. The recognition of this fact is difficult in a field like librarianship. We aren’t really renowned as a field of proactive change agents. Many library workers would like to keep things as they are (and I’m no exception sometimes), but of course it’s never possible to do so. If it isn’t a pandemic or budget cuts, it’s new technology and shifting needs among the library’s core audience. These things drive change and can’t be controlled by the library. In fact, the attempt to maintain control that leads to making library workers crazy. It takes great strength to accept the changes and to work within the confines of those changes.
We are in a time that makes us question things: is the new library going to be the sort of organization we can work for? The “new normal” isn’t what anybody signed up for. How we approach our work mentally will dictate our tolerance for change and the work we can do within a fluid, changing context.
The key to adjusting the mental framework, I think, comes from another zen lesson in Jackson’s book. It goes like this:
There’s a Zen saying I often cite that goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The point: Stay focused on the task at hand rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Jackson’s wisdom is to focus on the process, not the championship. It’s to focus on the daily tasks, doing what you can, where you can, to be great in the moment. I can only aspire to that kind of mentality. But it’s likely the only cure in my power for the anxiety that comes with an unstable situation. In any given moment, I can’t control the overall direction of things. But I can chop wood and carry water. I can be as good a part of my team as I can be. And I can believe that if we manage the things we can control, that the winning will take care of itself.