Photo Credit: screenshot

At the risk of offending countless readers, I hereby declare my choice for the greatest sports movie of all time: “Miracle“.

If somehow you haven’t seen it, the Disney classic dramatizes the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s stunning victory over the Soviet Union when the two rivals fought the cold war on the ice in Lake Placid, NY.  The movie depicts one of the most exhilarating episodes in modern history while offering a powerful allegory for success in any area of life.

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Within the layers of this true narrative resides the lesson of visionary mentoring from head coach Herb Brooks.  By creating a team culture of aspirational discipline, Brooks succeeded in forging a bunch of college kids into an indomitable unit.

In one of many memorable scenes, Coach Brooks – played pitch-perfect by Kurt Russell – concisely lays out for his players why the Soviets have remained undefeated, and how Team USA can prevail:

“Their main weapon is intimidation.  They know they’re going to win, and so do their opponents.  Everyone in this room knows what people are saying about our chances.  But I also know there is a way to stay with this team. You don’t defend them. You attack them.  You take their game and you shove it right back in their face. The team that is finally willing to do this is the team that has a chance to put them down.”

What’s the contemporary relevance of a 15-year-old movie about a 40-year-old game?  Because in a different contest, in a different generation, the same strategy produced a similar kind of upset victory.

This month, Jeopardy! fans across the continent watched what really was the battle of the greatest of all time.  Legends Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer squared off against each other in an extended tournament to see who would be crowned the Titan of Trivia.

And, like Team USA’s victory four decades earlier, the outcome presents a compelling model for all of us to achieve personal transformation and spectacular success.

“I’LL TAKE ADAPTATION FOR 2000, ALEX”

Ken Jennings was the long shot.  Despite his record of 74 consecutive victories, he had never won a tournament of champions.  In contrast, Brad Rutter had never lost one, except to Watson, the IBM supercomputer.

Many observers put their money on James Holzhauer, who broke Jeopardy’s one-day record over and over again during the 32-game winning streak that earned him more than $2,700,000.  In fact, during James’s extraordinary run, Ken himself remarked that he couldn’t imagine beating James

The contest comprised a series of two-game matches.  The first player to win three matches would be named champion, so the tournament could have gone on for as many as seven nights.  Instead, it was over in four – a blowout for Ken Jennings, in which James won only a single match and Brad won none at all.

Here is what makes this story so instructive.

The electricity that had recently made James Holzhauer a national obsession came from his aggressive style of play.  Unconventionally skipping over the easier clues, James started with the highest value questions, intimidating opponents with his lightning-fast buzzer and going all-in whenever he found the daily double.  With this strategy, he was virtually unbeatable.

So what did Ken Jennings do?  On the first night, he charged out of the gate playing James’ game, starting with high-value clues and betting it all whenever he found the daily double.  In other words, he took the style of play that James had employed so successfully and doubled-down on it himself.

In contrast, Brad played as he had always played.  His style had always been good enough to beat everyone else – even Ken.  But it wasn’t good enough to beat James or, in this case, the reinvented Ken, who steamrollered Brad while beating James at his own game.

THE CALL OF GREATNESS

When we have a formula that works, we stick with it – that’s a good thing, except when it’s no longer working.  Ken did precisely the opposite in a way that was truly inspirational, pivoting to a new style of play and employing it to defeat the master from whom he learned it.

Recognizing greatness is relatively easy.  But emulating greatness – that is the hallmark of the truly great.  Learning the lessons of success and making them our own is the way we better ourselves over the course of our lives and our careers, constantly observing, absorbing, re-evaluating, and adapting.

It applies in competition.  It applies in business. It also applies in character.  Who are the people worthy of our admiration? What makes them admired, respected, or revered?  Instead of doggedly persevering in our own habits of personal conduct, we need to identify the real champions – not just in business but in personal quality – then figure out their playbook and start running those plays ourselves.

King Solomon observes that every person is tried according to his praise.  The heroes and ideals we admire challenge us to follow their voice and remake ourselves according to their standards.  The more exalted the hero and more noble the ideal, the more praiseworthy we become by walking in their ways and refashioning ourselves in their image.

Who is your champion of character?  How are you going to take a page from their playbook and become a champion yourself?

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