I just finished reading ‘The Book of Basketball’ by Bill Simmons. I am a HUGE basketball fan (go Lakers), and the book definitely satisfies on that level – highly recommended.
No less compelling, however, is Simmons' point of entry into understanding the history of NBA Basketball, its stars, the great teams & classic battles.
In this regard, he works backwards from the actual outcome of Winning, rightly understanding that winning, and not impressive stats, is what legacies are made from.
So, what makes a winner? In hushed tones, NBA greats call it “The Secret” (although Bill Walton, an NBA legend whose tutelage came under UCLA Dynasty-maker John Wooden, calls it “The Choice”).
Basically, The Secret is that greatness and winning championships is a by-product of teammates liking each other, knowing their roles, ignoring statistics, and valuing winning over everything else.
In a star-driven game, winning comes about because a team’s best players sacrifice to make every one else happy. And let us note that history shows that these teams only continue to win as long as everyone remains on the same page -- before the disease of "more" takes hold (i.e., wanting more money, more playing time and more individual recognition).
This is somewhat fly in the ointment to simpletons that assume that he/she who assembles the best talent always wins, which is not to say that winning comes in absence of having stars.
Quite the contrary. In fact, Bill Russell, he of the unfathomable twelve championships with the Boston Celtics, notes that star players have especially enormous pressures beyond their statistics; namely, the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it at critical times.
“You have to do this to win championships - and be ready to do it when you'd rather be a thousand other places,” notes Russell. In fact, what makes a star a star is specifically the ability to measure the game, so as to understand the moments when winning requires you to make the big plays (either directly or by facilitating others), and rise above. That is what repeat winners are made of.
From NBA Superstars to the Real World
How is the different from real life? Well, not very much, in fact. I hearken back to the story of chipmaking-giant, Intel’s ascendance, and the role that Andy Grove played within it (as amazingly told in George Gilder’s ‘Microcosm'). Literally, at every key stage of the business, there was Andy either personally solving the hardest problem (technical, business or strategic) or commandeering the forces to higher ground.
Yeah, you say, but Andy Grove is one in a million. NBA superstars are one in a million.
True, but this begs the question; are the legends of Business and Sports cut from that different of a cloth than you and I?
The answer brings me to the other book that I just finished reading, Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers. The Story of Success’. Outliers contemplates the recipe for success by asking first if successful people are truly ever self-made.
He concludes that while there is plenty of brilliance behind successful people, no less integral is an invisible – but very real – hand working behind the scenes in providing the proper "environment variables" for their future success.
Gladwell’s narrative, which I wholeheartedly embrace, is that culture is a memetic self-perpetuator that manifests and perpetuates far beyond an immediate generation through parentage, patronage and pattern recognition.
Further, he elucidates the tangible role of timing as a contributor to success, in terms of being born during certain favorable macro economic and micro-industry movements. Some examples:
- The case of tech legends Bill Joy, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates having the good fortune to gain early and prolonged access to computer technology and like-minded peers, by virtue of where they were born and/or attended school.
- The dynamic where the lawyers that came to dominate the massive M&A legal segment were mostly Jewish and mostly children of garment industry parents that had emigrated to the US the generation before, and why this was so.
- The fact that a disproportionate number of the wealthiest individuals at the beginning of the 20th century came to maturation in a narrow age window at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
- The unfortunate negative gravity for those coming of age professionally during the depths of the Great Depression.
The net-out is that success is an offspring of being in the right place at the right time; with “good enough” skills (to succeed), the right work ethic, ambition and the simple practice of getting enough “reps” – about 10,000 hours of focused experience – to become an absolute expert in one’s field of interest.
Understanding the Potency of Accumulative Advantages
Gladwell does a wonderful job of framing the interplay of opportunity, timing and chance, and how, collectively, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time, he shows how we continue to operate under the illusion of "catching up" from early deficits, not understanding how Accumulative Advantages really work; most basically, that early advantages lead to increased attention, positive affirmation and reinforcement, culminating in "unfair advantages" down the road.
(SIDEBAR: As a parent on the fence of whether to push a youngish son to the next grade level or give extra time in a lower grade for “seasoning,” the section on Accumulative Advantages was especially illuminating.)
Of particular relevance to success is Practical Intelligence, a topic that Gladwell delves into so as to underscore the importance of seeing the big picture and using that understanding to drive the little picture of direct action, as opposed to getting buried in analysis.
Here, Gladwell shows how so-called Geniuses that are lacking in Practical Intelligence have far more difficult life paths than those that are merely Smart and Motivated, but which are armed with Practical Intelligence.
Similarly, Outliers considers the integral-ness of pursuing meaningful work in achieving success, not to mention, happiness in life. Such a realm offers complexity and autonomy, and equally, yields outcomes that are based upon a direct relationship between effort and reward. In other words, purpose matters.
Taken together, the analysis and exposition that Outliers provides is a great tool for evaluating priorities and paths in career pursuits, entrepreneurialism and parenting. I strongly recommend it.
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