Imagine getting hired by a company, and falling in love with your job.
The culture aligned with your own mentality: a gritty, blue-collar ethos that said anything is possible with enough hard work.
You loved your teammates. You loved your new city. You were great at your job, and you were making strong contributions that were helping the company thrive.
Then, one day, out of the blue, your boss calls.
You've been fired.
How would you react?
That's essentially the situation NBA player Isaiah Thomas found himself in recently.
The sports-obsessed city of Boston quickly embraced Thomas when he arrived two and a half years ago. Thomas helped return the Boston Celtics to the top of its conference, and the future looked bright.
But when Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics pursued what they felt was an upgrade. Thomas and a handful of players and a draft pick for a younger player who already had a championship under his belt.
Thomas's letter gives a raw, poignant account of how it felt to be traded from the team he had grown to love over the past few years. He addresses the experience from multiple perspectives--as a dad who once again must move his family because of work, as a player whose entire career changed in a remarkably short time.
And with this letter, Thomas showed us what emotional intelligence (the topic of my forthcoming book) looks like in the real world.
Emotional intelligence is a person's ability to identify emotions, to recognize their powerful effect, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. In short, it amounts to making emotions work for you, instead of against you.
Thomas's letter teaches some amazing lessons in how to harness the raw power of emotion, and direct that power in a positive way.
Here are a few highlights:
1. It's OK to feel hurt.
Thomas understands the game to which he's dedicated his life, and the business aspect involved.
But understanding doesn't always make things easy.
As he writes:
Of course I get it: This is a business.
... At the same time, though, people gotta understand. Like, even with all of this being said ... man ... it still hurt. It still hurt bad. And I hope people can understand that when I say it hurt, it isn't directed at anyone. I'm not saying I was hurt by anyone, or wronged by anyone, or betrayed. I'm just saying, man, I'm only human. I may act like a tough guy on the court. And I may seem like I have ice in my veins when I'm competing. But it ain't ice, really. I got blood and I got a heart like everyone else.
And so when I say this hurts, man -- just know that it isn't because of anything anyone else did. It's only because of something I did.
I fell in love with Boston.
Takeaway: The first step in dealing with a painful experience is acknowledging it, embracing it. There's nothing wrong with grieving over loss, whether it's a job, a loved one, or anything else.
If you lose something important to you, the first step in moving forward is to take the necessary time you need to grieve.
2. Strive to see the whole picture.
Thomas continues with a lesson about how easy it is for people to judge players who change teams when they become free agents.
"I just hope that the next time a player leaves in free agency, and anybody wants to jump on him or write a critical story or a nasty tweet about him, maybe now they'll think twice," writes Thomas. "Maybe they'll look around the league, look at a case like mine, and remember that loyalty--it's just a word. And it's a powerful word if you want it to be. But man ... when it comes to business, it ain't nothing to count on."
But that's what I think my trade can show people. I want them to see how my getting traded -- just like that, without any warning -- by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for? That's why people need to fix their perspective. It's like, man -- with a few exceptions, unless we're free agents, 99 times out of 100, it's the owners with the power. So when players are getting moved left and right, and having their lives changed without any say-so, and it's no big deal ... but then the handful of times it flips, and the player has control ... then it's some scandal? Just being honest, but -- to me, that says a lot about where we are as a league, and even as a society. And it says a lot about how far we still have to go.
Takeaway: Thomas's words can easily be applied to many situations today. So many problems result because people simply aren't ready to see things from the other person's perspective.
If more people worked to understand why others feel different than they do, the world would be a better place.
3. Show thanks.
One of the most touching parts of Thomas's letter refers to the tragic death of his sister Chyna, who was killed in a car accident just a few months ago. In the midst of a fierce playoff battle, Thomas made the difficult decision to go back to work the following day.
When I arrived at the arena that night, after Chyna had passed -- I was thinking ... I need this court to be my shield tonight, I need this court to help me forget. But when I got out there? Man, it's one of those things ... I can't even describe it. The applause that I got, I can still hear it. People had these signs they made, and I can still see them: THIS IS FOR CHYNA. WE <3 ISAIAH. That sort of thing. Then they did a moment of silence, the whole arena, in Chyna's honor. And it was like ... man. I just realized, in that moment, that I didn't need the court to shield me. I didn't need to block it all out, and pretend I wasn't grieving. I didn't have to be alone in this. The whole arena was right there with me. Honestly, it felt like the whole city of Boston was with me.
When Thomas was traded, his entire life changed in a few seconds. He could have become embittered, or viewed the past few years as a waste of time.
Instead, he gave thanks to the city of Boston for helping him through an extremely difficult time, and for helping to shape the man he has become today.
Takeaway: Sooner or later, you'll also face difficult circumstances.
Don't allow these to make you bitter. Instead, focus on the positive and what you've learned from it all; then, use those lessons to move forward.
4. Keep moving forward.
Thomas saves the best for last.
I'm still hurting, and I'm still sad to go. And I'm sure I'll be missing my Celtics family for quite some time.
But I'm just going to go to Cleveland now, and do what I do. I'm going to play my guts out. It might not be the career that I dreamed of having last year, or even last month -- but when you think about it, that's kind of been my career from the start. It's never been the dream come true, and it's never been what you expect. It's just been me.
... But whether I would have without this trade, or I wouldn't have -- I still like to imagine one thing.
I like to imagine that sometime not long from now, somewhere in Boston, someone is going to be a parent, talking basketball to their kid. And their kid is going to ask them, point-blank like kids do, you know, "Yo -- why you become a Celtics fan?"
And that parent, man, they're going to think back to themselves -- really think on it. And then they're going to smile, and tell the truth.
"I saw Isaiah Thomas play."
That would make me very happy. For me, I think, that'd be enough.
Takeaway: Life rarely turns out the way we plan. When things quickly take a turn for the worse, we hurt. We may feel the intense pain our emotions bring about is almost too intense to bear.
And it's important to remember: This is all absolutely normal.
You shouldn't ignore those feelings, and neither should you crawl into a corner and feel sorry for yourself. The key to moving forward is to embrace your emotions, reflect on them. Try your best to understand the true reasons why you feel the way you do, and just as important, what action you can take.
Maybe it's writing a letter to achieve closure, as Thomas did. Maybe it's changing your perspective or focus, to prevent yourself from being equally let down from similar circumstances in the future.
Learn from your mistakes, but don't let your mistakes define you. Keep moving forward.
5. Take your time.
It's no coincidence that Thomas, who is typically very active on social media, took his time to share his thoughts on the trade.
Doing so is difficult nowadays. Email, social media, and other electronic communication has conditioned us to respond immediately, and we expect others to do the same.
But it's this pressure that leads many to speak and react too quickly. When we do, we often say things we later regret. We damage relationships. We hurt others, and we hurt ourselves.
And here's perhaps the greatest lesson Thomas teaches us through his letter to Boston:
Thoughtful responses are always better.
Thinking before speaking or acting helps us to put into words what we truly feel over time, not just the first emotion that strikes us. It keeps us from simply getting caught up in the day-to-day, going through the motions in a way that wastes time in the end. And it inspires us to stop and listen to those who disagree with our opinion, instead of getting upset or snapping back.
So, the next time you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with emotion, remember to take your time and think things through. Embrace your feelings. Strive to see the big picture, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
But above all, use those thoughts to pursue growth.
Then, your emotions will be working for you, instead of against you--helping you to make the best of whatever life throws your way.