The shocking news continues to echo throughout the world: basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash this past Sunday in southern California.
Some events are just too hard to believe, especially given Bryant’s imperturbable and invincible character, which he cultivated through an intense focus on excellence both on and off the court.
Throughout his 20-year NBA career, Bryant’s basketball prowess earned him 18 All-Star selections, five NBA championship titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals. Off the court, Bryant was a published author, philanthropist, partner of a venture capital firm, head of his own media studio, and a dedicated father to four girls.
Though Bryant did possess heaps of raw talent, his fellow professional athletes contend it was his sheer mental fortitude that propelled him to greatness. Bryant had one of the most determined and electric mindsets not just for a basketball player but also for any human living on this earth.
Bryant’s mindset can be summed up in his own coinage: the “Mamba mentality.” Understanding it provides a glimpse into what made him so great, and it has profound implications for our own lives, as well.
The Rise of Mamba
First off, the Mamba mentality is a play on Bryant’s own nickname, “The Black Mamba,” or just “Mamba.” Bryant explains the nickname in his autobiographical documentary, Muse.
Around 2003-2004, Bryant was at a low point in his career and personal life, so he decided to do something unusual: he created an alter-ego. Thus, “The Black Mamba” was born.
In the documentary, Bryant states:
I went from a person who was at the top of his game, had everything coming, to a year later, having absolutely no idea where life is going or if you are even going to be a part of life as we all know it.
Bryant also tells it this way:
I had to separate myself. It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created "The Black Mamba."
The particular name was chosen after Bryant saw Kill Bill, in which an assassin kills another character with a venomous snake. Bryant remarked on the nature of the snake’s length, bite, strike, and temperament and was captivated by the way snakes shed their skin. (A reference to growing out of his old self).
The alter-ego helped Bryant cultivate his own philosophy. Simply stated, Mamba mentality means “just trying to get better every day.” It’s the “simplest form of just trying to get better at whatever you’re doing.”
Sure, it’s not mind-blowing as far as philosophy goes, but it is practical and actionable.
In his Mamba Mentality autobiography, Bryant explains in more detail the importance of mastery and the lessons of failure. He discusses the power of obsession:
If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they're not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out.
It’s easy for people to point at masters like Bryant and remark that their talent is simply God-given. But the reality is that even though some might have natural attributes or abilities, what distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary is the amount of work and dedication put into perfecting a craft. Bryant knew this best.
Bryant was always the first one to show up at practice, sometimes injured, and often before the lights even came on—sometimes five hours before practice even started. He once warmed up before a practice from 4:15 a.m. to 11 a.m., refusing to leave until he made 800 shots.
Bryant was hyper-focused in his pursuit of greatness.
Even in high school, Bryant would practice from 5 a.m. until 7 a.m.—before classes started. He would also challenge his high school teammates to one-on-one matches, first to 100. He won his worst game 100-12.
Off the court, Bryant was just as obsessive. He cold-called and texted numerous business people and entrepreneurs to pick their brains about success, sometimes at 3 a.m. He started his own media company dedicated to storytelling and produced a short animated documentary that won an Oscar. He taught himself to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by ear on the piano.
There’s no denying Bryant was hyper-focused in his pursuit of greatness. How much of that can be attributed to “natural ability”?
In addition to mastery, one must accept failure as part of the learning process. Failure is inevitable, and when gone about the right way, it has a lot to teach us about improvement. On the importance of it, Bryant states:
If I wanted to implement something new into my game, I'd see it and try incorporating it immediately. I wasn't scared of missing, looking bad, or being embarrassed. That's because I always kept the end result, the long game, in my mind. I always focused on the fact that I had to try something to get it, and once I got it, I'd have another tool in my arsenal. If the price was a lot of work and a few missed shots, I was OK with that.
Bryant realized that if you want to improve or learn something new, you’re going to fail at your first attempts. But through repetition and trials, you will eventually improve. When you understand that, failure becomes an integral tool in bettering yourself.
That’s an important thing to keep in mind. What inhibits many from achieving or even pursuing goals is the fear of failure or embarrassing one’s self.
Fellow G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan puts it this way:
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Mamba-fy Your Own Life
Bryant shared his Mamba mentality with countless individuals, teams, and organizations in hopes of giving them the mindset to achieve greatness. The benefit of this philosophy is you don’t have to be a superstar to actualize it in your own life.
Think about what Bryant tried to impart. What areas in your life could you apply it to? Are there certain things you’re good at that you could become a master of? Are you putting in the work necessary to accomplish mastery? Are you letting the fear of failure inhibit your pursuit of success?
Bryant understood that success was the result of putting in the reps. Along those lines, Will Durant (summing up Aristotle) said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
It’s tragic that Bryant was taken from this world so young. One of the best ways to honor the dead, however, is to take the best aspects of their character and integrate them in your own life, letting the light of them shine through you.
That may be the proper way to view a person’s legacy. It’s the impact on others that continues to exist, long after we leave this body. Though Bryant is gone, his legacy lives through all those inspired by his dedication to excellence.