You don’t need to be a basketball fan to know that LeBron James has been deciding if he should stay with his current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, or move to another, more winning team. ESPN set aside an hour-long special episode for James to announce that he’s going to the Miami Heat.
James is extremely talented and has been called the next Michael Jordan. He is a free agent this year which is the genesis of the hoop-la surrounding his decision, and he has been madly courted by multiple teams.
Many sportswriters have said that the widespread obsession with James’ decision is totally over the top. The New York Times called the ESPN segment an ego-a-thon, which it may well be. But there’s more to our fascination with the decision than just our natural tendency to be drawn to celebrities. James encapsulates the issues each of us faces when we decide if we should relocate.
It’s friends and family vs. opportunity. James grew up in Akron, OH without a father. His basketball coaches played father figure roles to him. The Cavaliers picked him up when he was only 18, and he’s been there for the last seven years. This is his home, his support system, and his roots.
The problem with Cleveland is that the team is not strong enough to win a championship. James has won every individual award but no NBA championships. And he could go to the Knicks, the Nets or the Miami Heat and just adding him would make that team the odds-on favorite for the next championship.
So James is choosing between safety and loyalty vs. ambition and accolades. For most of us, this is what relocation entails.
We know, in our hearts, that happiness does not come from fame, (and this hunch is confirmed in a study from the Univerrsity of Rochester). Happiness comes from close relationships with family and friends. But it’s a hard pill to swallow. USA Today reports that most of Gen Y says they’d like to be famous. That explains a lot of the relocating away from families in small towns.
Also, most of us are not as rich as James, and we relocate with money in mind. Research from Nattavudh Powdthavee of the University of London shows that to make up for the decrease in happiness that you experience when you leave family and friends, you would need to make $133,000 more than you were earning before the relocation. (So, in fact, money can buy some degree of happiness.)
For James, though, it’s not the money. Certainly he has enough. Which means he is looking for a life that is more interesting. The game is more interesting with top-tier players to pass to. James is a great passer. He's a great team player, and he doesn’t have anyone on his team that plays as well as he does. The thrill of playing is bigger with better teammates. So James is doing something many of us do—he is choosing a more interesting life instead of a happier life. (Note to non-NBA employers who bitch about loyalty: James is also is making a choice to go somewhere where he can grow his skills. Something that employers need to address if they want to keep any top-tier talent.)
I have written a lot about this dichotomy between happiness and ambition. I think our toughest decisions are actually between contentment and interestingness. James is not content. It is not his nature. He wants the game to be as interesting as possible, and he’s hit a wall in Cleveland. I think for many of us, the relocation bug hits not because it’s going to make us happier, but precisely because we are not searching for happiness. We are searching for something else. It’s scary. It’s scary to chase the interesting life because it means you are not likely to be content—maybe not ever.
And take a lesson from LeBron James: You can’t make everyone happy, and it’s risky to try. So when it comes to tough decisions, make sure you’re doing what’s right for you.