There is a Jewish principle that I’ve gotten wrong my whole life.
In Hebrew, the principle is known as, “Dan et kol ha’adam l’kaf zechut.” Typically, we translate that as, “Give people the benefit of the doubt. Even if you see them doing something wrong, assume the best.”
So yeah, like probably many of us, I’m not great at this. But it’s even more than that. I actually think that for over 30 years, I fundamentally misunderstood this principle.
I recently heard a transformational understanding of this idea from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. If you don’t know Rebbe Nachman, introduction made.
But Rebbe Nachman goes further. He says that this whole principle is not just about others. It’s about ourselves. When we look inward, don’t focus on only one thing. On the failures, on the ways we screwed up. Remember to focus on ourselves as whole people. The sum of so much.
To be dan likaf zechut for ourselves means that when we look in the mirror, we have to see the good inside of us.
In the moment of failure, let’s treat ourselves charitably. When we fail, we need that person who loves us so much to say, you’re a success! Don’t define yourselves by this moment.
When I was a classroom teacher, I tried to normalize failure for my students. When the kids got a question wrong, I had them shout, “I made a mistake!” I’d hear them yelling in the hallways, “I made a mistake!” It was cute, yes, but it was something so much bigger: It’s normalizing a lack of perfection. We have so much anxiety that we need to perform perfectly. That it will say something about my personhood, my character if I don’t. And what happens when I don’t? When I’m not perfect, as none of us are? Pain. Crippling anxiety. For some, depression. Shutting down. Not being able to cope.
For this conversation, I wanted one person and one person only, former NBA player Mike Sweetney.
If you did not follow Sweetney’s basketball career, it looked like this. Star player in high school. Went to Georgetown for college, following some of the greats like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. Mike excelled there, averaging almost 20 points a game. As a junior, he ranked in the top 20 in both scoring and rebounding – the only player that year to do so. And after 3 years of college ball, Mike was ready for the next move; he declared for the 2003 draft, you know, the same draft as Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and was selected by the New York Knicks, probably the most famous franchise in American sports, with the 9th overall pick. Amazing! He was doing it! Living the dream. Success.
But then, something went terribly wrong in his career. And Mike thought, that’s it. I’m not a success. I’m a failure. But, boy was he wrong.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you someone who embodies what true success as a person looks like, the ultimate mensch, Mike Sweetney.
Noam: Mike Sweeney. So excited to have you on The Power Of, where we’re going to be speaking about success and we’re going to be speaking about failure, obviously. So, could you tell us why you chose to speak about success with us?
Mike: I think things that I went through in my personal life on getting success. I worked so hard, starting off playing basketball at the age of nine. And for me, I always dreamed of being a professional basketball player since I was 19 years old. Once I became able to work hard and got lucky enough to become successful and make the NBA, I wanted to tell people, “Yes, you have to work hard to be successful, but there’s a lot that comes with it. And are you able to handle that mentally?”
And I think a lot we see that with professional athletes. We see that with people in the entertainment world, politicians. It’s a lot when you become even just the CEO of a company or just in general. It doesn’t have to be a top title to be successful, just whatever you claim as success. And once you get there, there are a lot of responsibilities that come with that and are we able to handle that?
Noam: I love that. Once you get there, as though getting to the NBA … Becoming CEO. Okay, now I got there. That’s success. And there are challenges that came along with that. We’re going to talk about that. I want to ask you if you’re able to give a 90-second version of your life story? What’s the story of Mike Sweetney?
Mike: Wow, that’s amazing. Pretty much, like I said before, a kid that dreamed of playing basketball and making it to the NBA. My father introduced me to that game of basketball. I loved it. And once I was able to make it, I went from Georgetown, playing in Georgetown University, being an All-American, to being lucky enough to be the number nine pick in the 2003 NBA Draft; the same draft as LeBron and Carmelo and Dwayne Wade.
I got the success of making it to the NBA but I wasn’t able to handle the downfalls of it, of losing my father, dealing with adversity. And dealt with depression, lost my NBA career and was able to pick myself back up. It took years, but I had to put the work in and do everything possible to be a better person. It was like being at the low totem pole, being high and then being back low and then picking yourself back up. That’s the story of Michael Sweetney. The rollercoaster.
Noam: But Michael Sweetney, I’m going to push back to your story because you didn’t include something about your story. You didn’t include as part of your story your wife and your children. And I know from knowing you how important they are to you.
Mike: Oh, most definitely. My wife, actually, we met in high school. We met in ninth grade. We started off as best friends and so she saw me when I was able to go through college and make it to the pros, but she also was there the day I lost my father. She was the first person that I called and she was actually living with me at the time so she’s the one that took me back home from New York to Maryland to, obviously, deal with the loss of my father. And she stayed by my side, even during my depression. Still, to this day, I tell people in a joking way, “I don’t know how she stayed married to me when I shut down from everybody. I was in a dark place. So, just her being by my side and then, obviously, she gave me three blessings of children who literally changed my life. And just try to have that unit because to me that’s all that matters is making sure that my wife and kids are happy and healthy and taken care of and just being that family unit. I love it.
Noam: That’s a huge part of your story. And when I think of success and I think of failure, I want to go back into my youth and go back into my childhood and think about little Noam and maybe little Mike in terms of what we were imagining success looking like. I think you and I are around the same age. I’m 36.
Mike: I’m older. 39.
Noam: Okay. Well, at least similar ages. I’m not sure that the way I viewed success then is exactly the way I view success now. I think the way I viewed success, let’s say, as a teenager or as a pre-teen …
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, now as 36 and 39 year-olds, it’s not like we’ve achieved all the wisdom in the world, but I think that that is … I want to say a juvenile approach to viewing success. Because if we look at adults in our lives … I look at my friends, I look at family, whomever. I look at myself. And what I see is many people have reached that apex.
And you know what they want to do? They want to go to some of the local spiritual guru. They want to speak to that person who knows everything about happiness and whatever it is and they want to listen and sit at that person’s feet because you know why? They’re not happy, still. And they may have “become successful” in their career, which means they earn X number of dollars or they’ve achieved Y things, but if there’s not a sense of feeling good about one’s self, feeling content, then what makes that person successful? Does what I just said resonate with you? Do you see things differently?
Mike: I agree 1000%. Pretty much like you said, it’s like some people, a lot of people put success as in material things. Like you said, if I can be this top-level CEO, I have this big home, I have this big car, I have this amount of money in my bank account, I’m successful. But you can be successful with the material things on the outside where people see, but the inside of you, you’re hurting, you’re crying, you’re depressed, you’re not happy with life, things are not going well. You want all these fancy things but if you’re CEO of a company and they ended up with a situation there, you might not be home. You’re spending 12-14 hours away from your wife and your kids and your family, whoever you may be … A lot of times it’s not a happy situation and they might not be happy. Your kids are missing you, your wife is complaining, “You’re not home so much.”
It can cause a lot to come with it. Like I said before, if you want those things, but can you handle what comes with it? And are you mentally prepared? And one of the old Georgetown guys, John Duren, Patrick Ewing, before I went to the NBA draft, they mentioned the same thing. Are you mentally ready for this? I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was like, “I made it to the NBA, man. I’m good.” And I didn’t really understand things that come with it. The media responsibilities, the fan responsibilities, trying to take care of your family. So much that goes along with it. Are you ready for that?
Noam: And I think we’re still speaking about it from a very specific lens, which is success in career or success monetarily or having material things. I’ve known who you are, Mike, for … I’m 36, like I said. I’ve known you for at least 20 years. You didn’t know me, but I’ve known you. And here’s how I knew you. I knew you because I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and I heard your name at the Capital Classic, which is, for those who don’t know, there’s the McDonald’s All-American Basketball game, which is the top high school players. And then there’s the other top high school player game, which is called the Capital Classic. Is that right, Mike? Would you say that’s accurate?
Mike: Yeah, 100% accurate. Yeah.
Noam: And you were co-MVPs of that game together with Tamir Goodman.
Noam: Right? So, Tamir Goodman grew up down the block from me. That guy was butter out there. He was smooth; his jumper, his court vision. And the story in the Jewish world was Tamir Goodman going to the University of Maryland and then not working out, going to Towson, difficult things happened to him there. And then he went to play professionally in Israel, got injured.
And your stories … You went to Georgetown. You went to the New York Knicks. Your stories, as professional players, perhaps didn’t turn out the way both of you would have imagined it when you were 17/18 years old. But when I look at the story of Mike Sweetney and I look at the story of Tamir Goodman, the way I view you guys is remarkable successes as people, like people that I want my child to meet. I more want my child to meet someone like you, someone like Tamir, spend time with you guys than to spend time with someone else who may have made more money in the NBA, who may have averaged more points per game in the NBA.
Why are we viewing success as that person as opposed to Tamir and Mike, who I look at and I’m like, “Oh my God. I just want my child to spend time with you.”? You know what I’m saying? That’s what I view as success.
Mike: I agree 1000% and I can see the fruits of that labor now. When I’m training, a lot of times parents send me their child to work with them basketball-wise and most of the time it turns … Yes, I’m doing skill work but it also turns into a personal level where that child may be going through anxiety or that child may be depressed or that child is trying to find their way in life and next you know … For me, I’m not bragging but I had a story, a situation I was working with …
Noam: Brag. Brag away. Are you kidding me? Go!
Mike: This one kid had very, very low self esteem. They just felt like they couldn’t play basketball well at all, they wasn’t fitting in. And next thing you know, after about eight months of work, with just conversation and playing basketball together, this kid ended up making the basketball team, this kid is second in scoring in the team, this kid is fitting in with the friends.
Noam: Wow. Wow.
Mike: He’s having conversations with kids when they wasn’t even comfortable having conversation with kids. Just the little things where … there was also me just being vulnerable with this kid, sharing a little bit more of my details, what I experienced in life. And I think it changed this kid’s life because I was spending time and just being humble. Like, “Hey, look. Yes, I was an NBA player. This is what I went through.” And that right there gave me so much joy in life.
Noam: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. You’re changing another human being’s life. That’s an unbelievable part of Mike Sweetney’s story. You’re also a coach on the YU basketball team, the Yeshiva University basketball team, and you’re doing incredible things there and making big moves there.
Noam: I want to learn some Torah with you, with your permission. There is an idea in Mishlei, which is Proverbs. It’s a famous line and it talks about the fact that baked into the DNA of success is failure. It’s inescapable. Here’s what it says. “Seven times the righteous person falls and gets up while the wicked are tripped by one misfortune.” There’s an incredible thinker. His name is Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner. He wrote a book called the Pachad Yitzchak. And here’s what he says. “The unlearned think that this means even though a righteous person falls seven times, he will rise even though the wise know well that the meaning is because a righteous person falls seven times, he will rise.” The insight is that it’s not that, oh, even if someone makes a mistake a number of times eventually they can still get up and let’s go. It’s saying the opposite. Intrinsic to success, the inherent nature of being successful requires failure. Mike Sweetney wouldn’t have been able to impact and influence this human being, this student of yours, without the failures that you’ve gone through. That’s a reality. Isn’t that true?
Mike: I agree 1000% on that. And a time when I was at one of my lowest, lowest points, one of my mentors told me … He was like, “Hey, I know you might not understand this now, you don’t want to hear it, but one day you’re going to look back at this moment and say this is the moment that changed your life because you learned, you had these downfalls, you know how to handle it. And one day you’re going to save somebody else’s life.”
Because at that time I had people in my life that shouldn’t have been in my life, so now they’re not. That’s one. Two, I’m able to share my experiences with other people to help change their life so hopefully they won’t have to have those same mistakes. Obviously, everybody’s going to have downfalls and mistakes, but if I can stop them from making the ones that I made, then that can be a good situation. For me, what you just read, that was my life.
Mike: And I hope you don’t think that I’m crazy to say that I’m glad I had those failures.
Noam: Again, from a personal level, I’ve seen your attentiveness to your own children, I’ve seen how you are in front of other people. It’s not my job to say you are a success or not as a person, but that’s a journey. To be successful is a journey. What you’re like at 45, at 55, at 65 and so on and so forth, you’re going to constantly be evaluating whether or not you’re living up to the goals, the dreams of what Mike Sweetney wants to be accomplishing and what I want to be accomplishing.
There’s one idea that I’ve been thinking a lot about with regard to failure and success. When I was in grad school I was in a class and in the class they asked us not to write our resumes but our failure resumes. I love this idea. A failure resume. And they did a five why’s of an analysis. The one that I chose was law school. I had always planned to go to a top 20 law school. When I was seven years old my grandfather said to me , “Noam, I want you to be a corporate lawyer.” I’m like, “Could I have more ice cream please?” And he’s like, “Noam, not only do I want you to be a corporate lawyer, I want you to be a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, in New York City.”
And in my mind, I think I always was going to do that. I was going to be a corporate attorney in New York City. And when I was applying to law school I got into some fine schools, good schools, but not into the top 20 schools that I imagined I would get into. And I include the five why’s as to why I didn’t accomplish what I set out to accomplish and it’s my failure resume.
Mike: I want to piggyback on something you said. I love that idea of putting out your failures because a lot of times when you go on social media a lot of people will say … will show all the great things that go on in life. “Oh, I just bought this new car.” “I just got this new house.” “I got this new promotion.” “I just bought this jewelry.” Everybody is showing all the things they got and how they’re successful. Nobody is showing, you got this new promotion, but how many times have you tried for that promotion and probably got denied for it? Or how many times did you try to get a loan for this house and two mortgage companies probably told you no. You’re not showing that stuff. You’re just showing success. So, I agree with you. A lot of people need to show their downfalls.
My wife, for instance. She wrote a couple TV scripts. And she had pitches with a couple TV stations and four of the stations came back and said no. And she was devastated. And she was like, “Why are you so calm?” I said, “Because I feel like at some point, you might get your chance.” But I said, “Some people get told no.” I’m sure most of these actors and writers, Probably a select few have been told yes right away. It’s one of those things you just keep pushing, you keep finding your way. Okay, they said no. Why did they say no? Let’s find a way. Not many people get the things they need right away. Sometimes there are steps to it and you get told no. There are failures. It’s one of those things, so I agree with you 1000%, that has to be put out there a lot more.
Noam: What about in the classroom for your own children? I think as a parent it’s really difficult, in many ways, to see your child fail in something. And on the other hand, there’s a value to it. I think it really helps with persistence, if it’s in a healthy culture. There’s a rabbi named Jonathan Sacks who said that, “failure is the supreme learning experience and the best people, the true heroes, are those most willing. Even more than the strength to win, we need the courage to try, the willingness to fail, the readiness to learn …” and this is the key line, “… and the faith to persist.” For your wife, it’s all about that faith to persist. That’s what it’s about. Falling is not failing.
Mike: I agree. I do think a lot of our young children need to learn about failure or not getting everything you need … everything you want right away. Because I think there’s a lot of struggles right now with our society with a lot of kids because a lot of kids don’t know how to handle adversity. They don’t understand when something goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It’s okay. You failed a test. You didn’t get into the school you want to get to. Or your friend made the team and you didn’t. It’s okay.
Noam: The worst thing we could do, Mike, I think … I’m just riffing for a second right now. I think the worst thing we could do is to blame other people for our children’s failures. I’m using this almost metaphorically. A culture in which we blame the refs is not the way to encourage the cultivation of success and the willingness to allow your child to fail.
Mike: I’m going to give you an example. My middle son, he’s eight. We just found out he has dyslexia … Now, mathematics and everything else … and computers, he’s a genius. But when it came to writing, he just couldn’t get it right. His reading, he was struggling. And he was so down on himself and it was really hard on him. And for him, I kept saying, “Hey, buddy. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to figure it out.” And we eventually got him some professional testing and found out, okay, this is what’s going on.
Noam: What did you do as a parent to help him fail well?
Mike: I told him. I’m not that harsh but I would say, “Hey, buddy. It’s okay.”
Mike: I said, “I’m glad you’re going through this at a young age,” I said, “because daddy, growing up …” I’m not comparing basketball to school work but growing up, I never had adversity. I was just making basketball teams, everything was going well, school was going well. And adversity hit me at 20 years old. And I didn’t know how to handle it. So I said, “I’m glad you’re learning.” And I told him my story. I said, “Daddy struggled.” I said, “I’m glad you’re learning at eight years old, okay, things are not going to go my way.” And he’s done it well. And for my other two children, my youngest daughter and my oldest son, they saw him go through this. And they’re seeing, okay, everything is not always going to be great. And now my older son, he’s struggling with something in class and he’s okay.
Noam: We all struggle. That’s the point. We all struggle.
I want to end with a few other questions that … Some silly, some not. From your 2003 NBA Draft, going back to that for a second, are you still shocked that Carmelo and LeBron are still playing? Is that wild?
Mike: Am I shocked? No. It’s one of those things. Like LeBron, I’m sure you heard his story. He was kind of ahead of his time. This kid. High school … Come out of college, we’re still eating fast food, we don’t know about healthy food. This guy is eating fruit and stretching. I’m like, “Why are you stretching? Dude, you don’t have to stretch.” All those things you watched him do after workout is just like, “Wow.” Now you look back on it, he was ahead of his time. He knew how to take care of his body at a young age.
And Carmelo, he got his body in great shape and he’s an amazing talent. Just having those type of guys around, I’m definitely excited to see those guys. But we worked out about four days before the draft.
Noam: You mean you worked out with LeBron and Carmelo before the draft?
Mike: Yep. And just seeing LeBron’s IQ level, you’re like, “Wow, this dude is …” 18 years old. I think it was 18 … 17/18 years old. Whatever he was at the time, he was almost like a 30 year-old man in the mind. It was crazy. And it’s one of those things. Everybody knew he was next. You knew, “Okay, this guy’s up next.” Just me being able to see that up front before the world got a chance to see it on that level was amazing. And Dwayne Wade was another shocker. I think Dwayne Wade was one of those guys nobody really knew about. I watched him a little bit in college.
Noam: In the tournament he was great.
Mike: Yes, in the tournament. That’s where a lot of people see him. But I saw him while he was at Marquette. And I watched him a little bit. I was like, “Wow, this guy is pretty darn good. Who is this kid?” And you start to see things and I’m like, “This guy’s going to be good.” And just seeing how fast he was in person, how athletic and strong he was. You kind of knew … Him and LeBron, you kind of knew, okay,these guys are going to be the face of the league. Just being able to see that up front and meet them personally was amazing for me.
Noam: From your perspective, The guys that you’ve seen, both at Yeshiva University and at the NBA level, Let’s say Ryan Turell or Eitan Halpert, do they have a different type of mental strength that you were able to look at and be like, “Okay, it’s not just physical. These guys are going to be able to accomplish something that’s different because of their mental fortitude.”?
Mike: Their mental is probably as strong as anybody. If you told Ryan Turell and Eitan Halpert right now, “Hey, do you think you can beat Lebron one-on-one or Chris Paul one-on one?” They’re going to say yes and they’re going to really believe that. You know what I’m saying? Their confidence level is so high and guys feed off that.
I work out with Ryan sometimes. We’ll do post work and stuff like that. And I’m guarding him and I see him … He’s talking trash to me and I’m like … Back of my mind like, “Dude!” But just their confidence level, they think they can beat anybody and they believe that and I love that about them. They’re not disrespectful. Not in a disrespectful way. And then guys … it feeds off on guys. I’ll see times during practice or game where we’re slacking, we’re sluggish and Eitan and Ryan will get to start talking and saying things and not only do they do it with their mouth, they do it with their actions, too.
Noam: Yeah, I got to say one more thing about Eitan Halpert because I love the guy. One game he didn’t have a great game and he said to me after the game … He said, “If I second-guess my shot for a second, I’m out.” And what he meant is … He’s saying that the best athletes have the … It’s a famous line. The best athletes have the memories of a goldfish. They forget. Meaning they’ve gone through their failure, they messed up. Okay, next game. Next up. And that’s what it means to be a great athlete. I think it’s what it means to be a great person; the ability to say, “Okay. I’m able to absolutely grow from that moment, move on from it and go on to the next thing.”
Noam: I want to ask you one more question, coach. Who do you think, not including you, is my favorite player from the 2003 NBA Draft? I’m 100% sure you’re not going to get this right.
Mike: I’m going to go on a limb and say Kendrick Perkins or David West.
Noam: It’s Troy Bell. Do you remember him? Boston College?
Mike: Yes, Boston College. I played against him.
Noam: You did? How’d you do? How’d you do against him?
Mike: He was a guard but he lit us up. I think he won both games I played against him. At like 30. But he’s a great, great player. And he’s one of those guys I’m surprised that didn’t have a long career in the NBA because he was super, super talented. Can shoot it, dribble strong. He’s a good player.
Noam: Yeah. When I was in high school … Listen. Listen. I played high school basketball so you know I know what it’s like, coach? No. But I would try to emulate Troy Bell. He was the guy I was like, “That’s a guy. I like that guy’s game.”
Anyway, coach, Mike Sweetney, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us about success and about failure, about how Judaism and Jewish thought can help us think about all of these ideas. And I hope you take the wisdom of the Pachad Yitzhak with in your life because it’s absolutely … The way I view it, it’s absolutely a healthy and important way to view life, which is to not think of the fact that even though we fail, ultimately we rise. It’s because we fail, we rise. And that’s the way I view the story of Mike Sweetney.
Mike: Actually, I want to say thank you because I actually learned some things today so I appreciate you. I don’t want to pronounce it wrong but I want to say thank you so much because my Hebrew is very … I struggle a lot with the Hebrew so I don’t even try to pronounce certain words. But I’ll just say thank you so much.
Noam: I’m the same way.
Mike: That was some great education for me today so thank you for that.
Noam: Thanks so much, coach. Really appreciate it.
Mike: Anytime. Thank you, guys.
Okay, you guys know me at this point. Nerding out with basketball, it’s one of my favorite things. But that’s not why I loved talking to Mike, though, it’s up there. I loved this conversation for a different reason.
But Mike…Mike reminds me of the same thing we opened this episode with. Dan et kol ha’adam l’kaf zechut – see the full person. I keep thinking about what Mike said, what Mike’s mentor told him, and he didn’t really want to hear. When you’re at your lowest, it’s hard to understand what’s next, but you just have to trust the process (another basketball reference, I’m sorry) – and believe that one day, you’ll look back, and see this is the moment that changed your life. This is all part of your story.
Those failures are a part of me – but the successes are too. I didn’t get that fellowship, but hey, I got a different one, and I made a lifelong best friend there. My project stunk, but I learned what to do differently – and the next time, it was a hundred times better. And yes, I forgot the snacks, but then Liana and I got ice cream, and we fed each other and giggled. Well, she giggled, I chuckled. It’s not that I should forget the failures and only think about the successes. Both exist – and both are a part of me, and my story.