Donovan Mitchell and the Value of “Slow Learning”

I looked out over the Salt Lake Valley. It had been a while since I’d stopped myself to collect my thoughts. I’d been trying over the previous month to figure out exactly what needed to be said about the Utah Jazz, but instead I found myself wrestling with concepts outside of basketball and statistics. I hadn’t been in class, and I had mostly avoided any sort of attempts at real-world learning through new experiences with others. To be honest, I had barely even thought about the Jazz and basketball in general. Instead, I’d spent the month contemplating reasons as to why I had developed a recent level of apathy towards life.

To be more personal, I didn’t see much of a reason to try at this point. I was apathetic towards death in the family, I was apathetic towards opportunities to meet new people and try new things. It’s not that I didn’t want to find reasons to try again, of course. I felt that if I could find my way back to the level of optimism that I’d had throughout my life, I’d be right back on track and would pick back up reasons for love and life, but for the first time that I could remember I wasn’t sure that I could find my way back to that level of optimism.

Why did I have this apathy? I’d failed. Time and time and time again. There was a class I had lost the will to complete, there was a girl I’d lost touch with, and there were friends that had become increasingly distant.

So again, there I was, gazing out over the valley. I’d been reading David Epstein’s best-selling book Range and reflecting on the concept it introduces about the value of a testing period in sports and in life. Those sampling periods, Epstein writes, allow athletes, kids, professionals and people in general to try out new things before narrowing in on a specialty. It speaks of the repetitiveness of golf and chess, and then highlights the difference between the value in early learning in those fields to the value of finding “range” by exploring other fields and disciplines. It talks about machine learning and its limitations in complex environments. While artificial intelligence can conquer things with tightly defined boundaries and rules such as chess or Jeopardy games, it has failed to reach any heights that humans have reached in cancer research or games with more long-term strategy. Even in chess, hybrid teams where a human’s judgement and long-term view can be combined with a computer’s ability to catalog and analyze millions of potential tactics tend to outperform a computer by itself.

This is because those concepts don’t necessarily have tight-knit, predictable boundaries, what the book called “kind” learning environments. Instead, they are more open-ended and fluid. “The difference between winning at Jeopardy and curing all cancer is that we know the answer to Jeopardy questions,” said one expert cited in the book. “With cancer, we’re still working on posing the right questions in the first place.”

There’s another concept in Range that suddenly — as I sat there at the valley’s edge — seemed to connect my own struggles to the Utah Jazz’s situation, with a young star frustrated about continuing to butt up against postseason disappointments.

The idea that bound that all together in my mountainside epiphany is what the book calls slow learning.

In one example of what slow learning can look like, a group of researchers at the U.S. Air Force Academy studied randomized groups of calculus students. The students were taught by different professors of different experience levels, who each had their own teaching strategies. The researchers surveyed students on how effective their professors were at teaching calculus concepts, and also tested their abilities by testing them before, during and after the courses.

The results teach us an important lesson about slow learning. The professors which were rated out as the best by their students also happened to produce the best immediate results. But what is more fascinating is that those students — who showed impressive early progress and loved their professors’ teaching methods — tended to perform the worst of all other students when moving deeper into mathematics courses. The students had learned fast, grasping concepts quickly and retaining them well in the short term. But the students who performed strongest years down the road were not those whose success was immediate; rather, the ones who struggled through the class initially eventually were forced to learn the concepts in a way that would make sense on an individual level. Of course these students were frustrated initially, as they didn’t perform as well as they thought they could have. Over time, though, they benefited from a learning process that was harder at first but longer-lasting.

The apathy I’d developed towards life was essentially my impatience with this slow learning: I had begun to think of failure and loss as a closed door. But a breakthrough came as I realized what the book describes was true for me, too: when you are forced to struggle to find a solution yourself, you’re far more likely to be successful in the future. Immediate success often comes at the detriment of the individual learning the process to push through challenges. The individual tends to the ease of case-by-case problem solving, rather than a more difficult system-learnt problem solving.

I had to remind myself that falling short — or learning slow — isn’t just OK. It actually leads to better problem solving and resiliency in the long run. And even though I wasn’t sitting on that mountain that day to think about Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz, the parallel was suddenly right there.

In 1988, Michael Jordan had a breakthrough. The Chicago Bulls had failed to win a single playoff series in each of his first three NBA seasons, but this season was different. Jordan took control of his opening playoff series, scoring 50 and 55 points in the first two games, and the Bulls held a commanding 2-0 lead. In the old best-of-five format, Jordan and the Bulls would have three chances to put the Cleveland Cavaliers away. They ultimately did in game five, giving Jordan his first second-round berth.

But Jordan’s Bulls would fall 1-4 in the next round to the Detroit Pistons. In fact, Jordan suffered through one playoff series loss after another. It took him four seasons to get past the first round, five seasons to reach the conference finals, and seven to reach the pinnacle of basketball in the NBA Finals. Of course, Jordan’s difficult, loss-ridden journey resulted in a separate show of the remarkable results of slow learning: He would go on to lose just one of his remaining 26 playoff series, and he completed a clean sweep of his 6 NBA Finals series.

Mitchell shares similarities to Jordan, both in and out of the record books. The two are only accompanied by Allen Iverson as players with multiple games in a playoff series with 50 or more points. Mitchell, like Jordan, has only found the second round of the playoffs twice in the first five seasons of his career. This obviously isn’t to say that Mitchell is set to have the career Jordan had, nor that Mitchell is anywhere near the level Jordan was at this point in each of their respective careers. But Jordan was able to learn from those early postseason failures and as a result became nearly unstoppable.

Mitchell is at a critical point where he can similarly build on lessons from his and his team’s disappointments. That’s true in specific on-court ways: opponents continue to target Mitchell’s defense, and he has struggled recently in clutch situations, with multiple costly errors and brain lapses.

But the single most important factor to his future success might be more about his growth and maturity: a willingness to be patient with slow learning and setbacks. Mitchell does not lack will or competitiveness, and he will be one of the most talented players in the NBA for seasons to come. But at this point he’s held back, in the eyes of this critical fan, by a lack of leadership. Mitchell’s lesson to learn is not to try harder. His lesson to learn is not to play better defense, nor make more shots in the clutch. Mitchell’s lesson to learn is one of accountability, trust, and teamwork.

To begin this article I presented my own flaws, this was deliberate. Mitchell’s flaws are on display for the world to see. Anytime he wants, he can find criticism, love, fans, haters, analytics to support or destroy his self worth. That has to be an incredible burden. He’s asked to be a flawless character for the fans, and he has answered that calling multiple times. Whether by showing up to Independence Day cookouts, talking to strangers over lunch, or gifting free shoes and love to kids, Mitchell has given generously of his time and personality. Yet, he’s found the harsh truth of the world as it is today: he can never be good enough. Despite his incredible success to this point, he’s told live, on national television, that he doesn’t have what it takes. Despite his continual efforts to create a community in Utah that is one of love and acceptance, he’s criticized for overstepping his boundaries in being a political influence. Despite him taking steps to overcome differences with teammates, coaches, or other individuals within the organization, he’s told he needs to be shipped out before he chooses to leave himself. Mitchell is a crutch of conversation for people to avoid addressing their own failures and is expected to be flawless, on and off the court. Yet perfection is the opposite of what defines a human, and from my perspective, Mitchell’s next step in his career is to accept that. Is that not leadership?

Donovan Mitchell has choices for his career in front of him. He’s under contract for three to four more years, but he knows that the organization doesn’t want to lose him without a return. He also knows that he gets a fresh start if he were to move on. The clear option, the easy option, is to ask to move on at a point now or in the near future – it would unfortunately be for the best in his career.

The second option Mitchell has is to continue to take on the challenge presented. He will continue to be scrutinized, he will continue to be asked to do more… be better… be perfect. Yet the harsh realization he’ll encounter if he moves on is that this will not change no matter where he plays. It won’t change no matter who he plays for, nor who joins him on the court. He will continue to fail. Whether or not he fails as a player, he will fail to be perfect nonetheless. He’s asked to be a superhero for the world to see, and in the position he is in, that’s not going to change.

The second option presented to Mitchell isn’t to work harder to overcome imperfection, it is to let the slow learning he’s encountered in his adult life shape the man he is, the player he is, and the leader he is. The less obvious option presented to Mitchell is to accept failure and utilize it to help him improve, both on and away from the court. The second option is to accept that he can’t please everybody, and at times won’t even be able to achieve his own goals and needs. Some players aren’t given the opportunity in high-level failure and individual dissection that’s been handed to Mitchell, things may have come easy to them to start their careers or they may not have been talented enough to be the center of attention. In turn, they’ll have moments similar because the second option is inevitable to life and maturity whether or not it comes as a basketball player. After all, how can I possibly criticize Donovan Mitchell as a leader while I’m still trying to figure out my own struggles in a much lower-intensity environment with far less on the line?

Instead, I offer this not as criticism or scrutiny, but rather as an expression of growth from an individual who found peace in slow-learning, an option that I decided to take:

The option that will be present for Donovan Mitchell now, and forever, is to choose to accept imperfection, and to choose to grow regardless.

It is to choose to grow now.

It is the option that is present for all of us, always.

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