The Proper Work Metaphor

junior varsity disclaimer

Since I’m about to extol the benefits of sports (or at least some of the thinking behind them), I should probably clear up a few things. While I’ve always loved sports, I am not an especially good athlete, and never have been. I was an abjectly terrible baseball player who quit Little League once it started becoming clear that how well you played baseball had very little to do with how much you loved baseball (so about 11 or 12). From there I floated around, playing pickup basketball and football with normal kids, until at 16, I managed to carve out a spot at the end of the bench on my high school basketball team.

That’s it. By any measure, I’ve always been better at school than sports (which isn’t saying much, but still), so it’s not like I’m some jaded meathead pining for the days when I could solve my problems by shoving someone into a locker. I was much closer to being the one getting shoved.

But the fact is that I’ve learned a whole lot from sports, particularly as an adult without any of the social or identity pressures that come from playing on a team as a kid. And as I get older, the number of problems I’m able to solve by thinking like an athlete seems to grow, while the number of problems I’m able to solve by thinking like a student — even a good one — keeps shrinking.

Here I am, solving problems with my awesome band of basketball misfits. 

what’s wrong with the student mentality

I’m of a certain generation of people who grew up in an interesting time. I’ll spare you the navel-gazing “old millennial” think-piece, but the long and short of it is that a lot of the “alarming trends” that affect people coming out of college these days started to gestate back when I was that age. For instance, when I was in high school, things weren’t nearly as competitive and Hunger-Games-y as they appear to be now. I was a pretty lazy high school student who generally stayed out of trouble and got by largely by drawing my teachers attention to things I was already good at, and simply gritting my way through terrible grades in things like Physics and Calculus (I was inexplicably in the smart-kid versions of both of those). I wasn’t cutting class or smoking cigarettes in the parking lot or anything, but I basically did everything at the last minute and tried to avoid doing work whenever possible. I also assumed I’d get into a decent college — if I couldn’t afford whatever would let me in, I had good enough grades and test scores to go to the University of Rhode Island for basically nothing, which seemed like a really good idea to 17-year old me.

Anyways, this is all besides the point, other than that while I was skating through high school reading ahead in American History while literally losing my Chemistry book, something else was happening. People were panicking about their own futures. Not just kids who desperately needed scholarship money, or who needed to stay close to home to help a sick relative or something. Regular old upper-middle-class kids, freaking out about whether we had enough AP classes, or how many valedictorians we’d allow if fifteen different students ended up with perfect GPAs. By my junior year or so, I was actually encountering situations where individual students — mainstream, popular ones — were more motivated by their own academic performance than they were the social well-being of the group. They wanted the class to be hard, and they wanted people to know it was hard. They cared about (and worried about) our high school’s academic reputation, which seemed absolutely ludicrous to me; I was much more animated about, say, whether we’d get to go outside for Physics lab. Obviously, this kind of thing rolled right on into college and got significantly darker, as I watched people cheat on exams, commit blatant acts of plagiarism, and increasingly look out for number one as they prepared for whatever prestigious environment was next on their life agenda.

Looking back, I guess that behavior makes sense, given the way this works. None of these social institutions were permanent — that simply didn’t occur to me as an immature goofball of a kid who grew up in a small town and went to school with the same people for my entire childhood. I valued the “community” I was familiar with, (could we get the teacher to skip this book if we stalled them long enough?) while my more mature classmates knew our social ties would be meaningless at the next level, and thus were prepared to cast them aside for their own benefit if necessary.

My understanding is that this kind of thing is no longer the exception, and is more of the rule. College is more competitive, internships are currency, and entry-level candidates are expected to have resumes you can critically evaluate, which seems absurd to me. But hey, I don’t make the rules, and if that’s the way it is, it’s hard to blame kids for hoarding their professional chips. Sometimes that takes the form of the morally dubious things I witnessed in college, but more often it’s simply a mindset that develops that doesn’t prioritize group success at the expense of things that end up on your personal list of achievements.

So keeping that in mind, follow the professional development track from infancy to entry-level employee.

  1. compete to get into preschool
  2. compete to get into gifted programs/travel teams/camps
  3. compete to build a college resume
  4. compete to build an undergraduate resume
  5. compete for internships
  6. maybe keep doing this for graduate school if you like debt
  7. compete to get hired

All these steps have two things in common — one, they’re all about you; specifically preparing you for something more important. Two, they’re all disposable environments that only exist to determine your next environment. That’s fine (if a little cynical) for places that exist to serve your needs, like school, or your expensive university. But it’s less fine if the place you’re using to build yourself up is simultaneously trying to use you to build itself up, which is — hello! — what actual for-profit institutions do.

And so you run into the problem with the academic model. It’s entirely about the individual, and presumes that the environment is disposable.

why the team sports mentality is better

Now, don’t get me wrong. Helicopter parenting and insane soccer coaches and all that have done their best to turn sports into the same worthless college-prep exercise that school is for many kids. But in general, teams are a much more difficult environment to be truly selfish in, and often map to the challenges of everyday professional business a lot better than school does. While some professions (pure research, and certain transactional activities like sales or trading) map perfectly to individual performance, most do not. In many cases, smart, inexperienced workers are asked to go from a world in which their own performance and skill determines success, to a world in which their only hope is to improve the performance of someone else by any means necessary. While this is baffling and weird to a lot of great students, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who’s ever needed someone to grab a rebound, or hold off the approaching defensive end for another two seconds while the tight end goes down the seam.

In other words, one of the most important lessons in life is that you can’t do everything yourself, and that truly great accomplishments in life can often only be done by enlisting and facilitating the help of someone who is better at something than you are. If you’re an artist, or a dictator, or genius, it’s possible to live a very large portion of your life without figuring this out. If you’re a point guard, you probably learned this before you hit puberty.

constructive failure

There’s another great lesson from team sports that I’ve found extremely useful at work, and that’s the concept of constructive failure. I’ve been on a lot of terrible teams, and part of a lot of broken plays where someone essential either forgets to do their job, or is incapable of doing it. What then? When you’re working alone, the most efficient solution is simply to stop executing incorrectly, and if all you ever do is work alone, pretty soon that’s going to become your preferred method of problem solving. That’s why Type-A managers who aren’t creative problem solvers often see poor performance on their team and think “this person is a poor performer”, or “how can I change this person”, instead of thinking about ways to restructure the environment or the system to make that person a part of something that works. That’s not to say certain people don’t need to change, or can’t be unacceptably bad at something critically important. It’s just that many individual-oriented managers tend to default to that assessment, which doesn’t leave you with a ton of options. 

When you’re on a team with a broken component, it’s amazing how creative you can get when it comes to solving problems. My beloved Boston Celtics dominated basketball and won a title in 2008 with two guys who couldn’t shoot by giving them creative roles that maximized what they were good at, and actively facilitated shots for the other three. The guys who couldn’t shoot didn’t see themselves as ineffective basketball players — they saw themselves as essential parts of a larger process that required them to excel at their specialties in the context of a team offense. The longer I play on adult rec teams, the more my thinking has shifted from “what am I good at” to “what can I do to make this team better”, not out of some virtuous elder wisdom, but because winning is fun and causing winning by being smart and observant and building up other people is even more fun. When we didn’t have any guards, I started bringing the ball up. When we didn’t have any size, I started throwing my weight around in the paint. Even professional sports reinforce this kind of subsuming of ego with great examples every day. Watch Stephen Curry hit shots from the locker room tunnel, and still make the right pass out of a double team every single time. Watch the San Antonio Spurs do literally anything.

It’s easy to watch this and think “oh, all these guys are high performers”, but they’re all wildly different players who are all actually terrible at variety of important basketball-things. But the system they’ve built stresses what they’re good at, minimizes what they’re bad at, and as a result generates incredible, impossible looking results. It’s wonderful, and the Spurs continue to re-invent themselves every year as necessary. The idea that their coach, Gregg Popovich, may be the greatest coach of all time is not crazy. 

this is learned behavior, and you have to get good at it

Unselfishness is a lot more complicated than simply not being a jerk, or caring more about the outcome of something larger than yourself. It’s understanding, and coming to terms with the power of putting aside your own abilities, and sometimes your own judgment, and making the leveraging of that power as natural as breathing or waving to a co-worker in the parking lot. It’s about seeking out skill and potential you realize you may be able to unlock, and seizing that opportunity with the same or greater excitement than you would the opportunity to excel yourself. It’s not necessarily about “deferring” — it’s about getting excited to make a block that frees the runner, or more aptly, to make the pass that leads to the pass that leads to a better shot. When you love doing that, and go to sleep smiling after your games because of it, you know you’re in a good place as a teammate.

Very few people operate this way right out of the gate. I sure as hell didn’t, and I’m not even particularly good at anything — I’m just yet another irrational lunatic who gets nervous sitting on a plane because I’m not actually controlling the plane. But you can start learning how to think this way at any point just by trying. If you’re lucky enough to work in an environment with a lot of talent waiting to be channeled (like I have been at many spots in my career), it’s almost impossible to not notice the results.