There are two people in my adult life that are the most influential to me in understanding how to achieve excellence. One of them is Tim Duncan, and the other one is Mr. Strickland, my first calculus teacher.
Mr. Strickland always started his first class of the semester with the same lecture,
In life, there are only three things you need to memorize:
1. Your name
2. The way home
3. The mean value theorem.
Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you what the mean value theorem is when you can look it up for yourself. The relevant fact is that it's a simple idea that is easy to state, and not all that difficult to prove.
But that isn't why it's important. It's important because if you can understand the mean value theorem (and most importantly, why it's true) then you actually understand all of calculus. The basic ideas of calculus, one of the most important and sophisticated tools that mankind has ever invented, are all embodied in the simple and humble mean value theorem. Being really good at math, and anything else, starts with a solid understanding of the fundamentals.
Tim Duncan had already learned that lesson before he came to the Spurs, probably something he learned from his mother, but he found a kindred spirit in Coach Gregg Popovich, and together they put together the most fundamentally sound career in the history of the league. His defense wasn't good because he was strong and athletic, he just knew where to be. He was able to block shots not because he jumped higher, but because knew where the ball was going. Then he would stop it and flip it to a teammate. He made basketball look easy because of how well he understood the game.
Because he started with the fundamentals. And never got away from them. It's something all of us should think about doing more often.
I didn't realize it at the time, but Mr. Strickland's three axioms are more than just a cute way to learn the basics of calculus, they form a blueprint for success in life.
Know your name: This means that you should know yourself and be true to who you are. It's really nothing more than Shakespeare's adage of "To thine own self be true." Duncan proved that even before he joined the Spurs, by fulfilling his promise to his mother and completing his degree at Wake Forest in four years.
Know the way home: Know where you belong and be a part of the community. Teamwork is fundamental to success. Certainly, no human being on Earth did a better job of this than Tim Duncan.
Know the Mean Value Theorem: If you master the fundamentals, you can be really good at something. Mastery of complex knowledge starts with a deep understanding of the basics. Duncan demonstrated that daily, not only with his own stellar play but also with the way he taught his teammates to play better and more efficiently. I think the basketball equivalent of the mean value theorem might be the pick and roll, which he executed perfectly -- on both offense and defense -- every time.
As a young man, a gifted teacher taught me a few basic principles that did more than just apply to mathematics; they were the building blocks for being successful in life. It made a huge difference to me and it's not an exaggeration to say that I owe my career to Mr. Strickland's devotion to his craft as a teacher. As an adult, I had the privilege to witness a man in sports who embodied the principles that Mr. Strickland taught. Thank you, Tim Duncan, for showing all of us how it's done.