Consistently doing what you need to do to succeed, with total focus and resolve, is incredibly difficult -- which is why working hard and responding positively to failure and adversity is crucial. 

And which is why most successful people are great at withstanding temptation and delaying gratification.

In short: They trade now for later.

Even when "now" means a high school senior looking at a $10 million check. With his name on it.

In May 2003, Lebron James was an eighteen-year-old about to graduate from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Reebok, Adidas, and Nike all hoped to sign him to a shoe deal.

His first meeting was scheduled with Reebok executives hoping to win the competition before it even started. According to Brian Windhorst's excellent LeBron, Inc: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete:

The idea came from Steve Stoute, a former music industry executive who launched the careers of dozens of artists from Will Smith to 50 Cent to Nas. Soute was working for Reebok and urged (them) to do what he'd done with many talented teenagers who had come from poverty. Show them the money, and it closes the deal.

'This happened all the time in the music business: Give the guy a big advance and they do the deal,' Stoute said. 'This wasn't short money. We were offering him the deal he wanted... We assumed if we gave him his price he'd take it.'

Reebok offered LeBron a deal that would have been worth up to $100 million in total... and a cashier's check for $10 million.

But with one caveat: If he took the deal he could keep the bonus check. If he walked away, the bonus would disappear.

As Windhorst writes, "Even Nike and Adidas would have understood him saying yes. It was the type of offer you probably shouldn't say no to."

LeBron said no. He turned down $10 million.

And went to school the next day.

"You have to think of the back end," LeBron later told Windhorst. "I was going to be making a deal for life. You don't think about the first check; you think about all of them."

Weeks later LeBron signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Nike that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Great money if you can get it, but still: The Nike deal was worth over $20 million less than the Reebok deal.

So why did LeBron go with Nike? As Windhorst writes:

LeBron picked Nike because he believed they would put him in great commercials and design memorable campaigns. He picked them because he thought they could give him the best shoe designs. But he also picked them because, in that vital moment, he valued legacy over an all-out cash grab.

That showed a value system and an instinct that would end up setting the stage for many of the business decisions he made over the rest of his career.

"Signing with Nike," LeBron said in 2018, "is the best business decision I've ever made."

Even though, short-term, it meant leaving money on the table. 

LeBron didn't make the easy play. He made the smart play.

Which isn't surprising, since research shows a definite link between intelligence and self-control. In this study, participants chose between two rewards:

  • Receiving a smaller, immediate financial reward, or
  • Receiving a larger financial reward at a later date. 

People who chose to wait for the larger reward tended to score higher on intelligence tests. Which makes sense: Having the ability to objectively weigh two outcomes and choose the better option is an obvious sign of intelligence.

Exercise self-control in order to maximize the fruits of your effort, labor, investments, etc., and you're likely to be much more likely to be successful.

You may not be LeBron successful... but you can be successful in whatever way you choose to define success.

Because, just like choosing to delay gratification, choosing to define "success" on your own terms is a decision you should definitely make. 

Published on: May 15, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.