Tag: Sports

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.

This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle andsup is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

— Richard Feynman

The Basics

A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption.

Aristotle, writing[1] on first principles, said:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.

Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”[2]

The search for first principles is not unique to philosophy. All great thinkers do it.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

The Coach and the Play Stealer

My friend Mike Lombardi (a former NFL executive) and I were having dinner in L.A. one night, and he said, “Not everyone that’s a coach is really a coach. Some of them are just play stealers.”

Every play we see in the NFL was at some point created by someone who thought, “What would happen if the players did this?” and went out and tested the idea. Since then, thousands, if not millions, of plays have been created. That’s part of what coaches do. They assess what’s physically possible, along with the weaknesses of the other teams and the capabilities of their own players, and create plays that are designed to give their teams an advantage.

The coach reasons from first principles. The rules of football are the first principles: they govern what you can and can’t do. Everything is possible as long as it’s not against the rules.

The play stealer works off what’s already been done. Sure, maybe he adds a tweak here or there, but by and large he’s just copying something that someone else created.

While both the coach and the play stealer start from something that already exists, they generally have different results. These two people look the same to most of us on the sidelines or watching the game on the TV. Indeed, they look the same most of the time, but when something goes wrong, the difference shows. Both the coach and the play stealer call successful plays and unsuccessful plays. Only the coach, however, can determine why a play was successful or unsuccessful and figure out how to adjust it. The coach, unlike the play stealer, understands what the play was designed to accomplish and where it went wrong, so he can easily course-correct. The play stealer has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t understand the difference between something that didn’t work and something that played into the other team's strengths.

Musk would identify the play stealer as the person who reasons by analogy, and the coach as someone who reasons by first principles. When you run a team, you want a coach in charge and not a play stealer. (If you’re a sports fan, you need only look at the difference between the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots.)

We’re all somewhere on the spectrum between coach and play stealer. We reason by first principles, by analogy, or a blend of the two.

Another way to think about this distinction comes from another friend, Tim Urban. He says[3] it’s like the difference between the cook and the chef. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important nuance. The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created.

The difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.

Authority

So much of what we believe is based on some authority figure telling us that something is true. As children, we learn to stop questioning when we’re told “Because I said so.” (More on this later.) As adults, we learn to stop questioning when people say “Because that’s how it works.” The implicit message is “understanding be damned — shut up and stop bothering me.” It’s not intentional or personal. OK, sometimes it’s personal, but most of the time, it’s not.

If you outright reject dogma, you often become a problem: a student who is always pestering the teacher. A kid who is always asking questions and never allowing you to cook dinner in peace. An employee who is always slowing things down by asking why.

When you can’t change your mind, though, you die. Sears was once thought indestructible before Wal-Mart took over. Sears failed to see the world change. Adapting to change is an incredibly hard thing to do when it comes into conflict with the very thing that caused so much success. As Upton Sinclair aptly pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Wal-Mart failed to see the world change and is now under assault from Amazon.

If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us — trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.

First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible.

When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money is a shared belief. So is a border. So are bitcoins. The list goes on.

Some of us are naturally skeptical of what we’re told. Maybe it doesn’t match up to our experiences. Maybe it’s something that used to be true but isn’t true anymore. And maybe we just think very differently about something.

“To understand is to know what to do.”

— Wittgenstein

Techniques for Establishing First Principles

There are many ways to establish first principles. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through stringent analysis. This a disciplined questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

This process stops you from relying on your gut and limits strong emotional responses. This process helps you build something that lasts.

“Because I Said So” or “The Five Whys”

Children instinctively think in first principles. Just like us, they want to understand what’s happening in the world. To do so, they intuitively break through the fog with a game some parents have come to hate.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Here’s an example that has played out numerous times at my house:

“It’s time to brush our teeth and get ready for bed.”

“Why?”

“Because we need to take care of our bodies, and that means we need sleep.”

“Why do we need sleep?”

“Because we’d die if we never slept.”

“Why would that make us die?”

“I don’t know; let’s go look it up.”

Kids are just trying to understand why adults are saying something or why they want them to do something.

The first time your kid plays this game, it’s cute, but for most teachers and parents, it eventually becomes annoying. Then the answer becomes what my mom used to tell me: “Because I said so!” (Love you, Mom.)

Of course, I’m not always that patient with the kids. For example, I get testy when we’re late for school, or we’ve been travelling for 12 hours, or I’m trying to fit too much into the time we have. Still, I try never to say “Because I said so.”

People hate the “because I said so” response for two reasons, both of which play out in the corporate world as well. The first reason we hate the game is that we feel like it slows us down. We know what we want to accomplish, and that response creates unnecessary drag. The second reason we hate this game is that after one or two questions, we are often lost. We actually don’t know why. Confronted with our own ignorance, we resort to self-defense.

I remember being in meetings and asking people why we were doing something this way or why they thought something was true. At first, there was a mild tolerance for this approach. After three “whys,” though, you often find yourself on the other end of some version of “we can take this offline.”

Can you imagine how that would play out with Elon Musk? Richard Feynman? Charlie Munger? Musk would build a billion-dollar business to prove you wrong, Feynman would think you’re an idiot, and Munger would profit based on your inability to think through a problem.

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

— Carl Sagan

Examples of First Principles in Action

So we can better understand how first-principles reasoning works, let’s look at four examples.

Elon Musk and SpaceX

Perhaps no one embodies first-principles thinking more than Elon Musk. He is one of the most audacious entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. My kids (grades 3 and 2) refer to him as a real-life Tony Stark, thereby conveniently providing a good time for me to remind them that by fourth grade, Musk was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and not Pokemon.

What’s most interesting about Musk is not what he thinks but how he thinks:

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.[4]

His approach to understanding reality is to start with what is true — not with his intuition. The problem is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, so our intuition isn’t very good. We trick ourselves into thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. The way Musk thinks is much different.

Musk starts out with something he wants to achieve, like building a rocket. Then he starts with the first principles of the problem. Running through how Musk would think, Larry Page said in an

interview, “What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.”[5]

Rockets are absurdly expensive, which is a problem because Musk wants to send people to Mars. And to send people to Mars, you need cheaper rockets. So he asked himself, “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And … what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”[6]

Why, then, is it so expensive to get a rocket into space? Musk, a notorious self-learner with degrees in both economics and physics, literally taught himself rocket science. He figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is that people are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t hold up to first principles. With that, Musk decided to create SpaceX and see if he could build rockets himself from the ground up.

In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk summarized his approach:

I think it's important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it's like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing… with slight iterations on a theme. And it's … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.[7]

Musk then gave an example of how Space X uses first principles to innovate at low prices:

Somebody could say — and in fact people do — that battery packs are really expensive and that's just the way they will always be because that's the way they have been in the past. … Well, no, that's pretty dumb… Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn't be able to ever get to that new thing…. you can't say, … “oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we're used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and … there's no gasoline that people can buy….”

He then gives a fascinating example about battery packs:

… they would say, “historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it's not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it's … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.

BuzzFeed

After studying the psychology of virality, Jonah Peretti founded BuzzFeed in 2006. The site quickly grew to be one of the most popular on the internet, with hundreds of employees and substantial revenue.

Peretti figured out early on the first principle of a successful website: wide distribution. Rather than publishing articles people should read, BuzzFeed focuses on publishing those that people want to read. This means aiming to garner maximum social shares to put distribution in the hands of readers.

Peretti recognized the first principles of online popularity and used them to take a new approach to journalism. He also ignored SEO, saying, “Instead of making content robots like, it was more satisfying to make content humans want to share.”[8] Unfortunately for us, we share a lot of cat videos.

A common aphorism in the field of viral marketing is, “content might be king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants” (or “and she has the dragons”; pick your metaphor). BuzzFeed’s distribution-based approach is based on obsessive measurement, using A/B testing and analytics.

Jon Steinberg, president of BuzzFeed, explains the first principles of virality:

Keep it short. Ensure [that] the story has a human aspect. Give people the chance to engage. And let them react. People mustn’t feel awkward sharing it. It must feel authentic. Images and lists work. The headline must be persuasive and direct.

Derek Sivers and CD Baby

When Sivers founded his company CD Baby, he reduced the concept down to first principles. Sivers asked, What does a successful business need? His answer was happy customers.

Instead of focusing on garnering investors or having large offices, fancy systems, or huge numbers of staff, Sivers focused on making each of his customers happy. An example of this is his famous order confirmation email, part of which reads:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box money can buy.

By ignoring unnecessary details that cause many businesses to expend large amounts of money and time, Sivers was able to rapidly grow the company to $4 million in monthly revenue. In Anything You Want, Sivers wrote:

Having no funding was a huge advantage for me.
A year after I started CD Baby, the dot-com boom happened. Anyone with a little hot air and a vague plan was given millions of dollars by investors. It was ridiculous. …
Even years later, the desks were just planks of wood on cinder blocks from the hardware store. I made the office computers myself from parts. My well-funded friends would spend $100,000 to buy something I made myself for $1,000. They did it saying, “We need the very best,” but it didn't improve anything for their customers. …
It's counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they'll tell everyone.

To survive as a business, you need to treat your customers well. And yet so few of us master this principle.

Employing First Principles in Your Daily Life

Most of us have no problem thinking about what we want to achieve in life, at least when we’re young. We’re full of big dreams, big ideas, and boundless energy. The problem is that we let others tell us what’s possible, not only when it comes to our dreams but also when it comes to how we go after them. And when we let other people tell us what’s possible or what the best way to do something is, we outsource our thinking to someone else.

The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvement and into possibility. Letting others think for us means that we’re using their analogies, their conventions, and their possibilities. It means we’ve inherited a world that conforms to what they think. This is incremental thinking.

When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others. It’s only when we step back, ask ourselves what’s possible, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible. Analogies are beneficial; they make complex problems easier to communicate and increase understanding. Using them, however, is not without a cost. They limit our beliefs about what’s possible and allow people to argue without ever exposing our (faulty) thinking. Analogies move us to see the problem in the same way that someone else sees the problem.

The gulf between what people currently see because their thinking is framed by someone else and what is physically possible is filled by the people who use first principles to think through problems.

First-principles thinking clears the clutter of what we’ve told ourselves and allows us to rebuild from the ground up. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but that’s why so few people are willing to do it. It’s also why the rewards for filling the chasm between possible and incremental improvement tend to be non-linear.

Let’s take a look at a few of the limiting beliefs that we tell ourselves.

“I don’t have a good memory.” [10]
People have far better memories than they think they do. Saying you don’t have a good memory is just a convenient excuse to let you forget. Taking a first-principles approach means asking how much information we can physically store in our minds. The answer is “a lot more than you think.” Now that we know it’s possible to put more into our brains, we can reframe the problem into finding the most optimal way to store information in our brains.

“There is too much information out there.”
A lot of professional investors read Farnam Street. When I meet these people and ask how they consume information, they usually fall into one of two categories. The differences between the two apply to all of us. The first type of investor says there is too much information to consume. They spend their days reading every press release, article, and blogger commenting on a position they hold. They wonder what they are missing. The second type of investor realizes that reading everything is unsustainable and stressful and makes them prone to overvaluing information they’ve spent a great amount of time consuming. These investors, instead, seek to understand the variables that will affect their investments. While there might be hundreds, there are usually three to five variables that will really move the needle. The investors don’t have to read everything; they just pay attention to these variables.

“All the good ideas are taken.”
A common way that people limit what’s possible is to tell themselves that all the good ideas are taken. Yet, people have been saying this for hundreds of years — literally — and companies keep starting and competing with different ideas, variations, and strategies.

“We need to move first.”
I’ve heard this in boardrooms for years. The answer isn’t as black and white as this statement. The iPhone wasn’t first, it was better. Microsoft wasn’t the first to sell operating systems; it just had a better business model. There is a lot of evidence showing that first movers in business are more likely to fail than latecomers. Yet this myth about the need to move first continues to exist.

Sometimes the early bird gets the worm and sometimes the first mouse gets killed. You have to break each situation down into its component parts and see what’s possible. That is the work of first-principles thinking.

“I can’t do that; it’s never been done before.”
People like Elon Musk are constantly doing things that have never been done before. This type of thinking is analogous to looking back at history and building, say, floodwalls, based on the worst flood that has happened before. A better bet is to look at what could happen and plan for that.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

— Harrington Emerson

Conclusion

The thoughts of others imprison us if we’re not thinking for ourselves.

Reasoning from first principles allows us to step outside of history and conventional wisdom and see what is possible. When you really understand the principles at work, you can decide if the existing methods make sense. Often they don’t.

Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) trying to understand a situation that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions and you stop letting others frame the problem for you.

Analogies can’t replace understanding. While it’s easier on your brain to reason by analogy, you’re more likely to come up with better answers when you reason by first principles. This is what makes it one of the best sources of creative thinking. Thinking in first principles allows you to adapt to a changing environment, deal with reality, and seize opportunities that others can’t see.

Many people mistakenly believe that creativity is something that only some of us are born with, and either we have it or we don’t. Fortunately, there seems to be ample evidence that this isn’t true.[11] We’re all born rather creative, but during our formative years, it can be beaten out of us by busy parents and teachers. As adults, we rely on convention and what we’re told because that’s easier than breaking things down into first principles and thinking for ourselves. Thinking through first principles is a way of taking off the blinders. Most things suddenly seem more possible.

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can,” says Musk. “They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

End Notes

[1] Aristotle, Physics 184a10–21

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1013a14-15

[3] https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[4] Elon Musk, quoted by Tim Urban in “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce,” Wait But Why https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[5] Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (p. 354)

[6] https://www.wired.com/2012/10/ff-elon-musk-qa/all/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-s_3b5fRd8

[8] David Rowan, “How BuzzFeed mastered social sharing to become a media giant for a new era,” Wired.com. 2 January 2014. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/buzzfeed

[9] https://www.quora.com/What-does-Elon-Musk-mean-when-he-said-I-think-it%E2%80%99s-important-to-reason-from-first-principles-rather-than-by-analogy/answer/Bruce-Achterberg

[10] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-estimate-boosts-the-human-brain-s-memory-capacity-10-fold/

[11] Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, George Land

[12] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2rgsan/i_am_elon_musk_ceocto_of_a_rocket_company_ama/cnfre0a/

The Metagame: How Bill Belichick and Warren Buffett Play a Different Game

The metagame is playing a different game than your competitors. A game they can't play.

The metagame is a strategy that involves understanding the structural or unconscious reasons that things are the way they are. This is the strategy that Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick use to create an advantage. It's what smart managers like Ken Iverson do to get the best out of people.

There is an interesting section in an obscure poker book called The Raiser's Edge that explains the concept of a metagame:

The metagame is this psychological game that exists among players, involving adjustments – adjustments based on how an opponent is likely to interpret a given set of actions. Better players adjust their strategies and styles to those of particular opponents, always analyzing how the opponents are playing in terms of how the opponents believe they're playing.

Maintaining a well-balanced strategy, while deciphering your opponents' strategies, is the key to the metagame. If you comprehend the concept of the metagame, accurately perceive the flow of your table and then tournament, and stay alerted to and aware of current strategy trends, you'll be able to successfully mix up your play when considering your image and that of your opponents. In return, your game will be highly unpredictable and difficult to read, which should be your ultimate goal.

Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick both use the metagame to create an advantage that others have a hard time matching.

Let's look at Buffett first.

Buffett is widely considered to be the best investor in the world. The company he controls, Berkshire Hathaway, often purchases companies that are public and makes them (effectively) private. For better or worse, public companies have certain environmental constraints. There are numbers to meet (or manage, depending on how you look at it). Expectations to meet. Shareholders who want different things.

The environmental impact of being public often nudges companies toward a path away from their best long-term interest. The timelines of CEOs and shareholders are often not the same.

For example, even if the investment made long-term sense, established companies would have a hard time increasing investment in research and development without an immediate impact (as this reduces earnings.) They'd also have a hard time building inventory (as this increases the amount of the capital required to operate the business).

This divide creates an interesting scenario where public companies can be at a long-term disadvantage to private companies. Private companies can do things that public companies can't do because of the perceived (or real) environmental norms.

This is where Buffett comes in. He can encourage the CEO of the companies he acquires to take another path. They can take a longer-term view. They can make investments without penalty that won't pay off for years. They can increase inventory. They can run the company without the worry of meeting quarterly expectations. Because they can take advantage of the environmental factors that public companies are under, private companies can't easily be copied in this sense.

This isn't limited to finance and investments. It relates to everything. Bill Belichick, perhaps the best coach in NFL history, uses the same strategy. He plays a different game.

Here's an example. Last year Belichick traded away one of the team's most gifted athletes (Jamie Collins) in the first part of the season. While Belichick never came out publicly to say the reasons Collins was traded, he effectively traded one of the teams best players for nothing. Very few coaches would have traded away a star for nothing. Belichick, was playing a version of metagame. He was able to do something that was for the good of the team that would be controversial in the media. A strategy that almost no other coach could get away with.

The ancient Romans employed the same strategy. They were excellent at hand-to-hand combat but lacked the have the naval capabilities of Carthage. So they played a different game … one that played to their strengths and used the enemies strengths against them.

Now you can argue that Buffett and Belichick can do things no other person can. You can argue these are Hall-Of-Famers that get more leeway. But interestingly, that's the point. Part of their greatness comes from identifying the constraints of others and capitalizing on those structural disadvantages, just like the Romans did.

In any system where there are norms, there are strengths and weaknesses to those norms. If you follow the norms of the system, the results you get are likely to be the norm. When you play a different game, a metagame, you have the opportunity to outperform.

Inside a Miracle: The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team

Few people know the details about one of the greatest stories in sports history. A classic David versus Goliath story that happened at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid when the U.S. Olympic Hockey team played the Soviets.

While the U.S. team had won the gold at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, they hadn't done much since then. The only notable showing was 5th place at the 1976 games. The Soviets, on the other hand, came into the 1980 Olympics having won 12 of the previous 15 world championships and 4 Olympic gold medals in a row. The Soviet record since Squaw Valley was 27-1-1.

In fact, the Soviets were so good, that in 1979 there was no NHL all-star game. Instead they just invited the Soviets to play a three-game series called the Challenge Cup. The U.S.S.R crushed the best players in the NHL 6-0 in the deciding game.

The Soviets beating the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Olympics was as close to a sure thing as you could imagine, or so it seemed. Only things didn't play out the way either team expected.

In his book, 99: Stories of the Game, the legendary Wayne Gretzky tells the incredible story of what transpired.

“In the United States,” Gretzky writes, “the goal was to build a team that, while not having much chance of winning, would at least not embarrass the country.”

Herb Brooks was hired as coach. If there was one guy in the program who wasn't playing to avoid embarrassment, it was Brooks.

Eighty of the best college players were invited to Colorado Springs in July of 1979 to compete for a roster spot (remember at the time the Olympic games were for amateurs). Although it wasn't so much a competition as formality. Brooks had won three NCAA championships coaching Minnesota, so he pretty much knew the 23 man roster he wanted.

A bit of leadership …

Brooks took one of the assistant coaches aside and said “A lot of these guys hate each other, and the only way I can think to make them a team is for all of them to hate me. You're going to have to keep all the pieces together and be the guy they can lean on, because they're not going to be able to lean on me. I'm going to be the same to all of them. I'm going to be tough on all of them.”

In a warm up game before the Olympics at Madison Square Garden, team USA lost to the Russians 10-3. The players were in awe of the opponent.

Brooks has spent a lot of time in Russia learning some of their systems. Herb discovered that when the Russians played hockey, they didn't shoot the puck unless they thought they could score, and so although it might look as if they had fewer than ten shots on goal, they were shots that counted. …

[I]t was all about puck possession. The Russian team didn't have to work as hard in defense because they had the puck so often. When a lot of people watch hockey, they don't seem to focus on that. A big part of my game (Gretzky) was the forecheck—chasing a defenseman down, lifting his stick, and taking the puck. If you take the puck off a defenseman or player in his own end, you don't have as many players to beat in order to score or to make a play.

An unexpected bit of ego and overconfidence …

The first medal-round game featured the Soviets and Americans. The game was played at 5 p.m. but didn't air on ABC until 8 p.m. “One of the most memorable moments in American sports history would be watched by most Americans three hours after it happened,” Gretzky tells us.

In the locker room just ahead of the game, Herb Brooks gave the most inspirational speech of his life. He told the guys, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. The moment is yours.”

The players skated onto the ice and looked up. The arena was packed. People were waving American flags everywhere. In the first minutes, the Americans surprised the Soviets with how fast and emotionally they played. Still the Soviets scored first. Then the unexpected happened.

Buzz Schneider took a slapshot and beat the legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, tying the game. The Soviets quickly scored again and it looked like the first period would end that way when Dave Christian picked up the puck in his own zone with only five seconds left. Rather than play till the whistle, a lesson we all learn at one point or another and one that was drilled into me by my high-school football coach, the Soviets had let up thinking the period was over. Christian shot the puck up ice, Mark Johnson chased it down, deked Tretiak, and scored with only one second left. Tie game.

In the second period, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled a surprise move. He replaced Tretiak—a guy known as one of the best goalies of all time—with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. I've (Gretzky) had the opportunity to sit down with Tretiak and hear his opinion about it. Tretiak was the biggest star in Russia—and maybe still is, thanks to what he did in '72 as a twenty-year-old goalie—and I think it used to drive Tikhonov crazy. He wanted to show everyone that his coaching was the reason they were winning the Olympics, not Tretiak's goaltending. And to this day, Tretiak thinks that's why he was pulled.

“Don't change a thing. Don't change a thing because they've changed goalies. Don't change a thing. Play the same way,” Brooks was heard telling his team.

A lucky bounce …

In the third period, the Soviets looked dominant again. Then, on a rush, a shot from Dave Silk slipped through a Soviet defenceman's skate right onto Mark Johnson's stick. Before Myshkin could move, it was in the net and the score was tied (3-3). A minute later, the American captain, Mike Eruzione, scored.

Now the Americans were leading, just ten minutes away from a shot at a gold medal. Brooks kept walking up and down the bench saying, “Play your game. Play your game.” He repeated it a thousand times at least.

Jimmy Craig (the American goaltender) was in the zone. He wasn't going to get scored on. When a goalie is in that kind of zone, especially in the playoffs, his ability to anticipate the shot is as good as the rest of his skill set. And Craig wasn't alone—the whole team was flying out there. When you go into a series without the sense of entitlement the Russians had, it gives you the intensity you need to get to that extra level.

The gamed ended 4-3 for the U.S. The Americans swarmed the ice. They could hardly believe it—they had to keep telling themselves, “We beat them. We. Beat. Them.”

It was the first game the Soviets had lost at the Olympics in 12 years.

There are several lessons one can take away from this story—Brooks' leadership to make the team hate him more than each other; Tikhonov's ego pulling the legendary Tretiak to show the world how amazing he was; and the importance of playing to the whistle come to mind. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that when the conditions are right, a group of “average people” can come together and get non-average results.

99: Stories of the Game goes on to tell 98 other stories about the game of hockey.

Why We Choke

The book Bounce by Matthew Syed is an interesting look at the science of success, filled with stories and interviews of some of the most recognized names in sport.

While Syed focuses the majority of the book on what it takes to excel in sport or anything for that matter, there is a really interesting chapter on why we choke.

For those of you familiar with the Farnam Street mental models, you’ll recall the concept of inversion. If we want to know how to succeed, we also need to know how to avoid failure.

Why We Choke

Syed himself choked in one of the most important games of his career.

He had made it to Sydney Olympics in 2000 and it was the first time he had been a medal hopeful. He was 29 at the time and already a decorated table tennis player.

He was at the top of his game and was filled with confidence – so why did he choke?

Well to understand that let's first look at what happened to him that day.

Franz stroked the ball into play – a light and gentle forehand topspin. It was not a difficult stroke to return, not a stroke I would normally have had any trouble pouncing upon, and yet I was strangely late on it, my feet stuck in their original position, my racket jabbing at the ball in a way that was totally unfamiliar. My return missed the table by more than two feet.

I shook out my hand, sensing that something was wrong and hoping it would rectify itself. But things got worse. Each time my opponent played a stroke, I found my body doing things that bore no relation to anything I had learned over the last twenty years of playing table tennis: my feet were sluggish, my movements alien, my touch barely existent.

I was trying as hard as I could; I yearned for victory more intensely than in any match I had ever played, and yet it was if I had regressed to the time when I was a beginner.

So why would an elite athlete suddenly play like a beginner?

It comes down to the two ways your mind functions when completing tasks; it uses explicit and implicit monitoring. A novice will use much more conscious or explicit monitoring as they are learning, trying to focus, and trying to remember. An expert has put in the time and gotten to the point where there is a switch to the unconscious or implicit mind. Syed explains:

… the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal ganglia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel.

This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole …, something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.

This transition between brain systems can be most easily understood by thinking about what happens when you learn to drive a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently in order to move the gearshift while keeping the steering wheel in the right place, pushing on the clutch, and keeping an eye on the road. In fact, at the beginning, these tasks are so difficult to execute simultaneously that the instructor starts you off in a parking lot and helps you slowly to integrate the various elements.

After a few years of driving your car, you don’t think much at all about all the elements that are coming together to help guide you down the road. In fact, you are so comfortable with the act that you can sip coffee and sing along to the song on the radio while doing a task that, at one point, was very difficult for you to master. But what happens if something occurred to suddenly shift you from implicit back to explicit, from the unconscious back to the conscious?

This situation has been re-created by Robert Gray, a psychologist at Arizona State University. He took a group of outstanding intercollegiate baseball players and asked them to swing at a moving ball while listening for a randomly presented tone to judge whether the tone was high or low in frequency. As expected, the tone-listening task had no detrimental effect on the efficiency of their swings… Why? Because baseball hitters have automated their shot-making.

But when hitters were asked to indicate whether their bat was moving up or down at the instant the tone sounded, their performance levels plummeted. Why? Because this time the secondary task forced them to direct their attention toward the swing itself. They were consciously monitoring a stroke that was supposed to be automatic. Explicit monitoring was vying with implicit execution.

Their problem was not a lack of focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the implicit system. The sequencing and timing of the different motor responses were fragmented, just as they would be with a novice. They were, effectively, beginners again.

So choking is a form of psychological reversion.

A complex task that you were able to do unconsciously suddenly comes into sharp focus and the complexity of it is really too much for your conscious brain to handle. And, now that your conscious brain is wrapped up in trying to figure out the nuance of this thing you used to know, you can forget about any higher level thinking. In an instant, your switch in focus has turned you from an expert back into a beginner.

Syed explains in more detail:

Consider what happens when executing a simple task, like keeping a cup of coffee upright under pressure – say, because you are walking across a very expensive carpet. In these circumstances, explicit attention is just what you need. By focusing on keeping the cup vertical, you are far less likely to spill the contents because of inadvertence or a lack of concentration. On simple tasks, the tendency to slow down and take conscious control confers huge advantages.

But precisely the opposite applies when executing a complex task. When an expert hits a moving table tennis ball or strikes a fade on a golf shot, any tendency to direct attention toward the mechanics of the shot is likely to be catastrophic because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle (this is another example of combinatorial explosion).

Choking, then, is a kind of neural glitch that occurs when the brain switches to a system of explicit monitoring in circumstances when it ought to stick to the implicit system. It is not something the performer does intentionally; it just happens. And once the explicit system has kicked in (as anyone who has been afflicted by choking will tell you), it is damned difficult to switch out of.

So how do we overcome choking and stop the explicit system from taking over?

Considering that choking only ever occurs in highly pressurized circumstances, what better way than to convince oneself that a career-defining contest doesn’t really matter? After all, if the performer does not feel any pressure, there is no pressure – and the conscious mind will not attempt to wrestle control from the implicit system.

In the end, Syed worked with sports psychologist Mark Bawden to help him overcome his issues with choking. They came up with strategies to lessen the pressure of big matches.

I worked with Bawden for many years after the Olympic Games in Sydney to ward off choking. My method was to think about all the things that are so much more important than sport: health, family, relationships, and so on. During my prematch routine, I would spend a few minutes in a deeply relaxed state, filling my mind with these thoughts, finishing with an affirmation…: ‘It’s only table tennis!’ By the time I reached the court, my beliefs had altered: the match was no longer the be-all and end-all.

This is a good strategy for the next time you have an important meeting/interview/presentation, counter-intuitively tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal. Remind yourself of all the things that are more important and maybe even calm yourself with some stoic negative thinking. Be confident and try not to overthink.

Billy Beane on Making Better Decisions, Challenging Entrenched Thinking, and Avoiding Biases

Moneyball Billy Beane

Billy Beane was put in the spotlight when Brad Pitt played him in the movie rendition of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Sports fans, however, knew long before Moneyball that Beane was special. He's the guy largely credited with taking a low budget team and turning them around by challenging the fundamental notions of a sport that had been around 150 years.

In a fascinating interview given on stage at the RSA conference in April 2015, Beane offered advice on how to make good decisions by challenging organizational norms, effectively using data, and avoiding biases. 

When asked about pushing through entrenched thinking, Beane replied:

I sort of represented that entrenched thinking in some respect, because I was the guy who came up in the business – a business that was 150 years old – as a former player. Quite frankly, I had a great mentor, a gentleman who didn't come up in the industry, in Sandy Alderson.

When I hired, I made sure I looked outside at somebody who didn't have the experience bias with my first, and maybe even one of the best hires I ever had was Paul DePodesta, who was a Harvard Econ major, didn't play sports, and really, was able to come in and look at things with an eye that wasn't biased.

We also took ideas from people outside the industry, guys like Bill James and Sean Cook and applied them.

On how biases creep into our thought process no matter how old we are or in what industry we operate, Beane commented on taking the emotion out of the decision making process and making it more rational.

Your own experiences, particularly in sports, where that experience may also be tied to an emotion as well, you tend to say, in football or soccer, in soccer there's a goal, and not all goals are created in terms of how you emotionally react to them. Baseball's a little bit the same way. So you kind of have to take a blind eye and look at things from the start and not make assumptions.

For us, we ultimately wanted to take all the emotion out of our decision making, and that came, many times, with your own experience.

One way to do that is to let data help you make decisions.

But data is everywhere and cheap. How can we leverage data analytics and extract meaningful information? On this Beane advocates an approach that makes sure you have cognitive diversity in the room – in other words, people that wouldn't normally be there.

[T]he book was really based on public information, as I said. Bill James had been writing for years, but because they didn't come up in the industry, it really was never applied. Again, sports is very emotional. Very much, you have to come pass the eye test. What we wanted to do was make sure our eyes weren't fooling us.

As far as today, the game and sports has changed dramatically. In fact, looking at the book now, it feels like you're watching an episode of “The Flintstones” a little bit when you see some of this stuff. The only thing that I haven't changed is making sure that I bring in guys that normally wouldn't be in this room. The advantage I have is I have access to intellectual capital that normally would be in this room, but want to work for a sports team.

We have access to data, everything … was being measured, thrown into this huge vat of data, and it's up to my staff to sift through what has relevance and which doesn't as it applies to predicting player performance.

One of the keys to looking at data is to bring different lenses to it to gain insight. You also need to put processes and systems in place with respective feedback loops to make sure you're not a sucker—that is, you can distinguish between luck and skill.

You're constantly evaluating. Sometimes, even when you have success, there's an assumption that that success was based on your process. Actually, you're always analyzing your process, making sure that the reason you weren't correct wasn't through serendipity, but the reason was because you have a good process and you're doing things properly.

It's challenging because the business of sports has become very, very intelligent. Baseball teams, football teams, basketball teams, they're all using this, and hiring, once again, guys that normally would probably be in this room.

The world is always changing as its a dynamic system. Your processes need to be adaptive. You can't have static processes in a dynamic world or you will go extinct.

[T]here's so many variables in sports, too. We try and quantify things that you don't think you can quantify, things that people…Once again, when you talk about challenging assumptions, things that people assume can't be quantified.

You try and quantify them so, at least, you're creating a process that, more than anything, when you are right or wrong, you can at least go back and look and see why you were right or wrong, similar to a mathematical equation.

Beane found a way to challenge assumptions and in so doing gain insight that he had the courage (and authority) to put into practice. How did he change the way things were done?

Well, sometimes you don't. Early on in our process, we lost employees because there certainly wasn't a belief. Now, understand, when we started out we had a great platform. We were challenged from revenue standpoint, so it was an opportunity in some sense, and we really had no other way to operate.

Through the course of doing things this way, we certainly lost people, but in the same sense, another year later we would gain two more people who were interested in going down this road. For us, it was rational. It made sense, and we really had no other choice.

Billy Beane

But, as Keynes so aptly put it “Worldly wisdom teaches us that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” And that path was not a linear story to success. There were moments when he doubted himself and operating in a cut-throat industry probably didn't make things easier. All eyes were on him. Was there a pressure to go back to the way things were always done?

Unfortunately, probably for some A's fans. They probably doubted me more than I (did). I think the one thing about the process, it was like a math equation. At least we knew why we were doing something. Our other option, to us, didn't make much sense. Certainly, you're hoping you're going in the right direction, and the assumption is that you are. We felt like that was the best road that we could travel.

I think, if anything, we certainly didn't fear failure, because we felt like going a traditional path was certainly the surest of failure, based on our revenues and the payroll that we were on. We had a lot of autonomy, too. Autonomy within, we were given a budget. The only limitations we had in terms of our intellectual curiosity was really making sure we stayed in the budget our ownership gave us. “Listen, hey, do what you want to do, but make sure you stay within the lines a little bit.”

But again, the fear…We knew going down another subjective path, we were certain to fail. We weren't going to consistently put something together that was on a year by year basis. The fear of going that route, there was greater fear going that route than going an objective route.

As a leader it was Beane's job to make sure the strategy they were using to find under-rated players was embedded throughout the organization.

At times it was challenging, because we hired some really…I was a former baseball player, and a lot of guys who had come up in the business, the guys we were bringing in were guys with PhDs in behavioral economics and Harvard masters in statistics, and things like that. Bridging that gap initially was challenging because most, certainly a baseball player like myself, my default position isn't to run a regression log.

We operate in a world with tremendous amounts of data and information but we're not challenging the platform that we're starting with to the extent we should be.

Even with a very young and progressive group of thinkers that are around me,  with a little bit of experience, you will always start at a platform that you assume to be true based on previous success. We always have to analyze our foundation because very quickly a culture and a tradition of doing things can get ingrained in a very short period of time. If you assume from a false platform that you're correct, you can go really awry. For us, it is constantly…Also, not being wrapped up in your own hubris with success and understanding that even with an objective based decision making, you are not going to be right 100 percent of the time.

 

What Can One of The Great Coaches of All Time Teach You About Leadership?

Bill Belichick

History will judge Bill Belichick as one of the greatest coaches ever. Not just in the NFL, where he coaches the New England Patriots, but in all of sports. He's also incredibly smart.

In his keynote address at the “Sports Medicine and the NFL: The Playbook for 2013” symposium Belichick offered a rare glimpse into his thoughts on mental toughness and leadership.

Mental toughness

In the end, our ability to perform under pressure is critical. In that light, it really comes down to two things. No. 1, the team process, all of us being able to work together and perform productively in the way that we need to do to win. We use the term ‘mental toughness’ a lot, and to me that term means doing the right thing for the team when things aren’t right for you — maybe a guy that’s not getting the playing time he hoped for, maybe he isn’t getting as many opportunities to do whatever it is he’d like to do. We all have to give up a little bit of something in this sport, and mental toughness is going out there and doing what’s best for the team even though everything isn’t going exactly the way you want it to. That’s what defines mental toughness in my mind.

Balancing the need for individual performance in a team sport

We’ve all heard the saying ‘there’s no I in team’ but in my mind I think there is a balance on that. There is an ‘I’ in ‘win’ and that stands for individual performance. Without strong individual performances from all members of the team, again regardless of what that person’s role in the game is – whether it’s the head trainer, the head coach, the offensive play-caller, the left defensive end — the individual performance of each of those people is what determines whether we can win the game. We can all stand around in the locker room and hold hands and chant ‘Team! Team! Team!’ all day and that isn’t going to do anything. We have to go out there and individually perform. There is a balance there.

… Sometimes it becomes a fine line between doing what’s best for the team and your individual performance. The way we try to handle that, or manage it, is that your individual performance is critical for us to win, and your mental toughness is doing what’s best for the team in every situation. So being solid and doing your job, and if you’re prepared and everybody around you knows that you are prepared and they can count on you, and you’re dependable to go out and do your job, then it makes it a lot easier for the person beside you to go out and do theirs. So if I’m playing right tackle and if I know the right guard is prepared – he’s studied, he’s dependable, he’s going to do everything he can to do the right thing, well, I’m just going out there and doing my job, I’m not thinking about whether he’s going to be here, or be there, and if we call this is he going to get it or not get it?

Leadership

“I get asked about this a lot, the leadership part of a team and how it develops. Can you build chemistry? Can you build leadership? How do you make guys into leaders and that kind of thing?

What I’ve always told our team, and what I thoroughly believe in, is that every member of our team – players, coaches, support staff and so forth – is a shareholder. They have a share in the team. Are they all exactly equal? Of course not, but they’re all shareholders. Every member of the team has an opportunity to show positive leadership or negative leadership. That’s really what it comes to. The question for that person is ‘How are they going to do that? How are they going to control that?’ Positive leadership, in my mind, comes from two things: No. 1, doing your job. If you don’t do your job, I don’t see how you can give any leadership. A lot of people who aren’t very good at doing their job, and who try to give leadership, are just looked at as ‘Look, buddy, why don’t you just do your job? Why don’t we start with that instead of trying to tell everybody else what to do?’ So No. 1 [is] do your job. No. 2 [is] put the team first. If those two things are in place, then that person is going to give positive leadership to the team.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes

I can say through almost 40 years of NFL experience that leadership comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. I’ve had players who were very vocal that were great leaders. I’ve had players who were vocal that weren’t great leaders. We’ve had other players that would never say a word. Troy Brown. He is never going to say a word. He’s just going to go out there, do his job, and do it the best he could and do what’s in the best interest of the team. He would never be one to stand up before a game and give some big team speech. That just wasn’t his style. But nobody had more leadership than Troy Brown did. So it’s not about giving a team speech, it’s not about having some big presentation or anything. Leadership is about doing your job and putting the team first. When Troy Brown played for us, he returned kicks, he covered kicks, he caught a lot of passes in the slot, he blocked and when we needed him in some very critical situations he went over and played defense against some very good teams and very good players. Was it always perfect? No, but he competed as hard as he could. He did the very best he could for the team and that’s all you could ask for; it didn’t matter what it was. Here is an example of a guy who was as good of a leader as I’ve ever coached who said probably less than any player of his stature that I’ve ever coached. So it’s not about volume or who’s the most talkative guy. It’s the guy who does his job and puts the best interests of the team and organization in the lead.

Either you're going to make changes or they're going to change you …

One of the things that I deal with, and I’m sure many of you do too, is just a volume of people. We have 53 players, and then guys on the practice squad, guys on injured reserve. So before you know it, you’re well into the 60s, sometimes 70 players. It’s impossible to deal with every one of those guys on an individual basis on a daily basis. You pick your spots with guys here and there, but you still have to connect with the whole team. One way is to stand there and address the team on a daily basis, which I definitely do. But another important way of connecting with your team in terms of leadership is your captains. As it relates to whatever organization you have, you have other people responsible for other people below you, and I’ve always felt that having the right people as captains was critical. We let the team vote on that, and I would say that most of the time, in the 90th percentile, that the team would vote for the same people that I would. But I would say that when the team is not voting for the people that you’d think are the right people, then you probably have problems all the way through your team. If you don’t have a good team, and they’re voting guys into leadership positions, you know you have problems all the way through. So you have to make changes. Either you’re going to make changes or they’re going to change you – one or the other.

Communication

If you have a solid group working for you all the way through, those captains will be the right people because your team is made up of the right people. So my communication with that group of people on a weekly basis or bi-weekly basis, the captains, is important to the overall communication of the team. They represent everybody – the offense, the defense, special teams, linemen, skill groups, and there are a couple guys on the younger side, a couple guys on the older side. So some of it’s football-related, some of it’s not football-related. It’s a good way for me to get a good pulse of the team but also to hear their message, and in some cases, deliver my message to them because it’s going to carry some weight [with other players] when it comes from them. It’s been a very good way for me to help manage the team and develop leadership. Once those guys are in those positions, they’re not just out there to walk out there for the toss of the coin; that’s really the least of their responsibilities. Their job really comes more to setting an example, showing leadership, and most importantly communicating one way or the other – whether it’s from the players to me or from me to the players – what we need to get done. …

Bringing people together

“It's hard when you have a large group of people, and all of them have their own individual interests, that you collectively have to try to bring everybody together to see it through, as much as you can, one set of eyes — one vision — is challenging on a lot of levels. In the end, I would say the biggest key to it is the communication and having people that have a passion for the same thing you're trying to do.”

(These comments were sourced from ESPN Boston)