By Malcolm Johnson
My journey began in Washington, DC during the difficult 1980s, when the city was consumed by drugs – and by the “war” on them. I rose up to accomplish what I thought would be my life’s highest achievement – playing pro football – but a few short years after it started, my athletic career ended with a thud.
The period immediately following my brief stint in the NFL was a great time to reinvent myself professionally, so I found myself in business school with some of the world’s smartest students. It was a challenge, but it eventually landed me at JPMorgan Chase.
What have I learned about living a successful life? Here are five things.
No man is an island. My parents, both proud Black Nationalists and products of the Civil Rights Era, gave me that bit of wisdom when I left DC in August 1994 and headed to the University of Notre Dame on a football scholarship. I learned the truth of it nearly halfway through my time at Notre Dame, when future College Football Hall of Fame and championship coach Urban Meyer joined the coaching staff as a 31-year-old assistant. He told me that he would work as hard for me as I was willing to work for him, and he made me believe that I controlled my destiny. He had a huge positive effect on my life.
Always be on the lookout for mentors. You can probably get to your goal on your own, but with the right people behind you, you’ll get there sooner.
You won’t win every time. But you shouldn’t let anyone beat you. Coach Meyer told me that, and those words live in my heart to this day. His tutelage helped propel me to a place in the 1999 NFL Draft, and then onto the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
My time in the NFL was short, ending less than four years after it started. Washing out of the league was emotionally difficult. But giving pro football a try was worth it. Even if I hadn’t become a superstar, I’d found value throughout my playing years in the pride that came from persevering through grueling workouts and bitter defeats, and then bouncing back with my teammates.
Even in loss, you can find a way to “win” by showing perseverance and character.
You need to try to make the world as proud of you as your family already is. Shortly after I told my family that I was leaving football, my wife who told me how proud my family was of me. It meant a lot to me, since leaving the NFL with no Super Bowl rings or Hall of Fame statistics felt like a failure.
The world probably will never be as proud of you as your loved ones will be. But trying to make it so is a great way to motivate yourself.
Remember that the world is not yours or theirs, it is ours. My parents, college sweethearts at the University of Pennsylvania, were proud of our family’s heritage as Black Americans. They raised me and my two younger brothers in an environment where we were expected to pay respect to things that were more important than we were.
Black pride was part of our family’s consciousness – my namesake is Malcolm X. So was service to our country – my grandfather was a World War II veteran and my mother was an Army reservist. We were taught about love, discipline and how the never-ending struggle to know yourself means understanding your place in the context of a much bigger picture.
Leaders must love, teach, do and live their words—authenticity is not negotiable. Leadership is a rare and precious quality, and one way to lead is to practice what you preach – and, in fact, to preach as little as possible.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the example of leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell and Gwen Ifill, not to mention my parents and coaches.
That’s not everything you need to live a successful life. I could have added to the list that you always need to do what’s best for the least of us, not just for the strongest, and that showing gratitude is always crucial. But with the pointers above, you’ll be off to a good start.
About the Author: Malcolm Johnson leads JPMorgan Chase’s efforts in covering institutional real estate companies in Southern California as an executive director in the firm’s Real Estate Banking group. He oversees a portfolio that includes some of the largest real estate development companies and fund managers on the West Coast.
He earned his Master of Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University and his Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame. Johnson serves on the Sustaining Board at the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate. Johnson has also been a guest speaker for The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Football League and numerous schools and non-profit organizations in South Central Los Angeles and his native Washington, DC. Charities that he supports include JPMorgan Chase’s Fellowship Initiative and The Brotherhood Crusade.
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