Learn to Carry the Tray

What I Learned from Kobe Bryant’s Work Ethic

Learning to carry the tray boils down to this: doing the things you need to do outside of work to become the person you need to be inside of work.

Kobe Bryant, one of my life's greatest idols, embodied this lesson in all that he did. He was famously known for his relentless work ethic. There are numerous accounts of fellow players finding him in the gym, at the crack of dawn, drenched in sweat before other teammates had even woken up. Not because he was asked to, but because he possessed a burning desire to be the best basketball player the world has ever seen.

Bryant was one of the most esteemed professional athletes ever to touch a ball. He was a five-time NBA champion, 18-time NBA All-Star, and currently holds the record for youngest player ever to start in an NBA game (18 years and 158 days old). The list goes on. However, the question we're answering here is, how? He was not the most talented athlete to ever walk this earth, so how did he achieve this level of success?

During his rookie year, Bryant was found in the gym by one of his veteran teammates, Byron Scott, 2 hours before practice started. Ok, showing up earlier is pretty standard, especially for a rookie, but there's a twist.

Per Business Insider:

I came in one time, and I heard the ball bouncing. No lights were on. Practice was at about 11, it was probably about 9, 9:30. And I go out to the court and I look, and there's Kobe Bryant. He's out there shooting in the dark. And I stood there for probably about ten seconds, and I said, "This kid is gonna be great."

A typical response might be, "He's crazy!" But Byron, a successful NBA champion in his own right, saw something else. He saw a young guy sowing the seeds of greatness, and greatness doesn't manifest itself when you're only willing to practice when all the conditions are perfect. Even at 18, Kobe knew that some work, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, is better than not taking advantage of the opportunity to get extra shots up.

NBA analyst Jay Williams recalls a run-in he had with Kobe during his stint with the Chicago Bulls. The experience forever stayed with him and taught him what it really means to put in the work.

Per Shut Up & Hustle:

During a regular-season game against the Championship Lakers, Jay took the court for practice four hours before the game against the Lakers, but he was shocked to see Kobe practicing already. Williams practiced for an hour and after he was done practicing, he sat down, but he still heard the ball bouncing.

Jay was shocked, because Kobe had been in a dead sweat when he got there for practice, and he was still going after Jay got done. He also added that Kobe was not practicing lazy or nonchalant moves, but full-on game moves.

Kobe scored 40 points that night and torched Jay and the Bulls.

Nobody would've blamed Bryant for resting his legs and taking it easy until game time. Again, he knew that winners don't allow opportunities to improve themselves pass them by.

Kobe Byant died in the midst of a new chapter in his life—storytelling. In 2018, he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film as the executive producer of Dear Basketball, becoming the only athlete ever to win a professional championship and an Oscar.

In an interview with Yahoo!, Bryant was asked to reflect on his legacy and had the following to say,

To think of me as a person that's overachieved, that would mean a lot to me. That means I put a lot of work in and squeezed every ounce of juice out of this orange that I could.

Since Bryant's death, I've witnessed the incredible outpour of love. I have watched millions upon millions of people pay their respects to this legend. Many were fans of basketball, and many were not. Through his dedication to mastery and his unflinching application to doing the work, Kobe Bryant touched all of us.

As someone who aspires to be great, it's imperative that you trust the process and do the work. Bryant didn't ascend to greatness because he was talented. His talent alone wasn't going to permit him to become the best version of himself on the court. He knew that what counted and made him stand apart from his competition was the work that he did off the court.

Learning to carry the tray is not a one-and-done approach; it's a mindset of pushing yourself to do the work that you know needs to be done to become the person you aspire to be. And if there's one thing we learned from Kobe Bryant, it's that with the right mindset, you can bulldoze the boundaries of what everyone else thought was possible.