My career didn’t start out with a bang. As a reserve member of the University of Minnesota’s basketball team, I averaged seven points per game. During my senior year, I broke my foot — twice. For a young man who dreamed of a career in the NBA, things didn’t look promising. But just a year later, I made NBA history. After signing with the Dallas Mavericks, I became the first undrafted rookie to start a season-opening game. I went on to play for the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons, scoring 874 points over 157 games.
My success story is unusual in and of itself, but here’s what might be the most surprising: I was able to achieve my NBA dreams by modeling my mindset on the shark. I knew that for an NBA team to be willing to sign me — an unknown college reserve player — I would have to learn and master the fundamentals of peak performance. Of course, I had to put in a lot of work on the court, but I quickly found out that success is also determined by what goes on in the mind: your attitude, your words, how you handle mistakes, your resilience and adaptability, how you choose to work with others, and much more.
At the time, I wasn’t relating my mindset to the shark or any other member of the animal kingdom. But the skills I developed, which are each inspired by a specific shark behavior, became the foundation for the “sacred six” principles that now guide my life. These are the same ones I teach to audiences around the world. The sacred six are a blueprint for operating with integrity and working toward consistent improvement in every area of life.
Why sharks? Despite their (undeserved) reputation as mindless, ruthless predators, sharks are smart, adaptable, discerning creatures that cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with other fish. You might say their success depends on having the right team. Many sharks live alongside one or more remoras, or suckerfish. The suckerfish find and eat microscopic parasites on the shark’s body, providing a potentially lifesaving service to the shark. In return, the suckerfish receive transportation, protection and meals from the shark. Each creature brings value to the other.
In my book, “Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, and Next Level Success,” I use a business fable to teach the lesson that sharks aren’t ruthless loners. Instead, they work with and develop others, constantly seek self-improvement opportunities, admit their mistakes and don’t allow the past to define them. The following are my sacred six shark-like traits that can set you on the path to success — no matter what field you’re in (or court you’re playing on).
1. Sharks never stop moving forward.
Some species of sharks must keep water flowing through their gills to avoid drowning, which means they can’t stop swimming — and they certainly can’t swim backward. They seek forward progress at all times. So should we.
My college coach used to say, “I see you’ve been working.” This was really impactful after I had made a mistake and worked to do better. The message was this: You are changing your behavior, and because of that change you are improving. Learning to “fail forward,” or use mistakes as launch pads for improvement, gave me an edge over players who reacted with blame or self-criticism. Just as forward movement gives sharks life, the progress I made infused me with even more motivation and passion.
2. Sharks never look down; they always look up.
Sharks keep their eyes on the water ahead of and above them, ready to react when prey appears. They don’t waste their time or energy on what’s beneath or behind them. Likewise, it’s important for us to keep our eyes and attitudes pointed in a productive direction.
In most situations, your attitude is the only thing that can stop you from succeeding. That doesn’t mean you’ll never lose a game or have a disappointing practice. You will. It doesn’t mean teammates will never make mistakes that affect you. They will. Even so, your job is to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t, and stay vigilant for opportunities. In basketball and in life, you never know when you’ll be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
3. Sharks are always curious and learning.
Sharks can grow up to a foot a year, and their development isn’t purely physical; they are always paying attention and learning. In fact, many sharks don’t attack potential prey indiscriminately. They observe and investigate before striking to make sure it’s a creature they want to eat. Likewise, we humans should always be growing and improving.
My coaches helped me identify and address my weaknesses as an athlete, but I knew that no matter how much skill I had on the court, I would never reach my potential if I didn’t operate the right way, every day. That’s when I really started to dive into the fundamentals of peak performance. It’s a journey of self-improvement I’m still on to this day. I’m constantly examining my choices and motivations: how I use my time, what I want to accomplish, what opportunities are in front of me, how to address my frustrations, etc.
4. Sharks always respect their environment and recognize other sharks.
Sharks don’t typically perceive other sharks as threats, and they seldom attack one another. Just as in the ocean, there’s room in your business for multiple leaders, mentors and success stories. There is no need to feel threatened or intimidated by another’s accomplishments or positions.
Some species of shark work with others to take down larger prey. They tap into the strengths of their fellow sharks to achieve a common goal, and so should we. This can be a tough lesson to learn as an athlete because everyone wants to be a superstar, but few people reach the top without help from others. So, look for those in your field who are getting it done or are performing better than you are, especially those who influence others by proactively recognizing and coaching them. These people can help you achieve long-term success — not just sporadic wins.
5. Sharks are always flexible.
A shark’s skeleton is made of flexible cartilage that enables it to change direction swiftly and efficiently. Sharks are highly adaptable — they can survive in warm or cool temperatures, swim in shallow or deep water and eat many different types of prey, depending on what’s available. All of these abilities are instinctual for sharks, but for humans, changing and adapting to new situations can be extremely difficult.
Reluctance to change is what causes many people to stop moving forward. But remember: It’s not your past decisions that define you, but your next decision. As an athlete, I used the offseason to unlearn bad habits and develop new skills. I now do the same thing as a leader. I regularly take time to evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and how I might need to change. I’ve found that often, the next right decision lies close to home — choosing to change my attitude or accept constructive criticism, for instance.
6. Sharks always elevate their suckerfish to new levels.
As previously mentioned, suckerfish and sharks enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. In return for eating potentially lethal parasites, suckerfish receive transportation, protection and scraps from the shark’s kills. In the human world, the suckerfish are those who need direction, coaching and guidance; and the sharks are the empathetic, people-focused leaders who provide those things.
We all start out as suckerfish — that’s certainly what I was as a young, ambitious basketball player. But as I improved on the court, I was always happy to advise the athletes coming up behind me. I knew that the more energy I put into helping them become better players, the more value they would bring to our team. Now, as an author, speaker and business coach, my mission is to share what I’ve learned to help others achieve next-level success. I truly believe that you aren’t successful unless you take others with you.
Thinking and living like a shark is what separates ordinary players from superstars, whether the game is basketball,
business or something else. Just as evolution has given sharks what they need to be apex predators, we all have the raw materials to be impactful players. So much of success is determined by mindset, habits, values, relationship management and lifelong learning. These are things the sacred six help you develop and strive for every day.