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There is a certain irony in the fact that a large part of any success I have achieved in life is due to the fact that I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s, right as the effects of rampant crack cocaine trafficking throughout the city was leading to the highly ineffective War on Drugs and eventually, the Era of Mass Incarceration. My parents, both Ivy League–educated professionals and acutely conscious community leaders, insisted that me and my two younger brothers focus on being lifelong learners, preparing for the opportunity to be excellent and living for something greater than ourselves. Each of those three tenets has proven invaluable in my winding career path and my personal mission to live as a true man for others.
Save for the extra homework assignments, college-level summer reading lists and the daily 5 a.m. “character building” workout regimen that my father insisted my brothers and I endure — all for the privilege of free room and board in the family home — there were no hardships in my upbringing. The world outside my front door, however, posed a different set of challenges. It was that difficult environment that broke many families and impoverished a lot of communities. But for the blessing of having been born into a family with two amazing parents and having had selfless teachers and coaches and neighbors as guardrails, my life could have taken a very different route. For that reason, I am grateful every day for them.
No small number of kind, generous and patient individuals have been helpful in my journey, but it was my parents who first instilled in me the qualities it takes to be a leader. They raised me and my younger brothers in a home with equal parts Black Nationalist pride (my namesake is Malcolm X), respect for service to our country (my grandfather was a World War II veteran and my mother was an Army reservist), love, discipline and a never-ending search for knowledge of self. Right before I left for college, it was my parents who reminded me: “Life humbles us all and real leaders do before they tell.”
I left D.C. in August 1994 for the University of Notre Dame, and despite my mother’s initial uncertainty about how I would balance my academic workload with the fulltime job of being a student-athlete, I could not have been more focused on a very specific outcome: maintaining the highest GPA on the football team en route to a place in the NFL. It was at Notre Dame that I met Urban Meyer, who was then just a 31-year-old assistant coach for the team’s wide receivers, but today holds the head coaching position at Ohio State and is a three-time national champion. One practice, Urban told me something that lives in my heart to this day. “You will not win every time,” he said. “But don’t ever let anyone beat you.”
Urban Meyer’s tutelage would eventually propel me to a place in the 1999 NFL draft. During my brief time in the league I found happiness in the camaraderie, teamwork and sense of pride that came from persevering through a grueling workout, practice or game, and the unity and resolve that came from regrouping to fight another day after a bitter defeat.
My singular focus as a student-athlete helped me reach the NFL. However, that kind of tunnel vision — professional success fueled in large part by channeling out all other outside pursuits — was what led to me experiencing the lowest of the lows when my NFL dream ended with an unceremonious thud less than four years after it began. Eventually, I picked myself back up, had the courage to broaden my horizons and start chipping away at areas that were once weaknesses. I purposely sought out a quantitatively challenging business school program, knowing I would need that skill set in order to compete in finance. Today, the mental toughness I needed to needed to navigate the steps from D.C. to the NFL to JPMorgan are just as important as being able to quickly analyze a client’s balance sheet or operating statement, but I am confident in my ability to handle both because I challenged myself to become well-rounded.
I have come to realize that competing and winning at work can never happen if you view it as “just a job.”
I was also intentional in choosing an employer that believes in melding talents from all walks of life and all over the world, to serve clients every bit as unique, skilled and diverse. I am inspired by our deep commitment to doing the right thing for the communities where we do business. Alongside my day job as an executive director in JPMorgan’s Real Estate Banking group, I am proud to serve as executive co-sponsor for The Fellowship Initiative, the firm’s mentorship program for young men of color.
Through my first career as a fringe NFL player, and now in the no less adrenaline-pumping world of real estate finance, I have come to realize that competing and winning at work can never happen if you view it as “just a job.” The lessons I have learned, both on the field and in the boardroom, have shown me how a career should not merely be about showing up for work, but helping you gain a truer sense of self and making an impact on the world around you.
Business and leadership, football and my parents have all taught me crucial lessons. The world is not yours or theirs, it is ours. And happiness is a personal, always evolving pursuit.
It can be easy to lose sight of the big picture in the day-to-day minutiae — to-do lists that never get shorter, email inboxes that just won’t let up. But I like to use Labor Day to reflect on what is most important, and impactful, about my day-to-day job. It allows me to pursue true happiness.
Malcolm Johnson is Chair of JPMorgan Chase’s West Coast Diversity Hiring Committee and leads JPMorgan Chase’s efforts in covering institutional real estate companies in Southern California as an executive director.