DON’T TELL YOURSELF A STORY

 Chapter 12

DON’T TELL YOURSELF A STORY


Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling.

—DAVID MARANISS

Starting in 1979, football coach and general manager Bill Walsh took the 49ers from being the worst team in football, and perhaps professional sports, to a Super Bowl victory, in just three years. It would have been tempting, as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over his head, to tell himself that the quickest turnaround in NFL history had been his plan all along. It would have been tempting decades later, when he assembled his memoirs, to assume that narrative as well.

   It’s a sexy story. That his takeover, his turnaround, and the transformation were assiduously scheduled. That it all happened exactly as he wanted—because he was just that good and that talented. No one would have faulted him if he said that.

   Yet he refused to indulge in those fantasies. When people asked Walsh whether he had a timetable for winning the Super Bowl, do you know what his answer was? The answer was always no. Because when you take over a team that bad, such ambitions would have been utterly delusional.

   The year before he arrived, the 49ers were 2 and 14. The organization was demoralized, broken, without draft picks, and fully ensconced in a culture of losing. His first season, they lost another fourteen games. He nearly resigned midway through his second year, because he wasn’t sure he could do it. Yet, twenty-four months from taking over (and a little over a year from having almost quit), there he was, the Super Bowl champion “genius.”

   How did it happen? How was that not part of the “plan”?

   The answer is that when Bill Walsh took control, he wasn’t focused on winning per se. Instead, he implemented what he called his “Standard of Performance.” That is: What should be done. WhenHow. At the most basic level and throughout the organization, Walsh had only one timetable, and it was all about instilling these standards.

   He focused on seemingly trivial details: Players could not sit down on the practice field. Coaches had to wear a tie and tuck their shirts in. Everyone had to give maximum effort and commitment. Sportsmanship was essential. The locker room must be neat and clean. There would be no smoking, no fighting, no profanity. Quarterbacks were told where and how to hold the ball. Linemen were drilled on thirty separate critical drills. Passing routes were monitored and graded down to the inchPractices were scheduled to the minute.

   It would be a mistake to think this was about control. The Standard of Performance was about instilling excellence. These seemingly simple but exacting standards mattered more than some grand vision or power trip. In his eyes, if the players take care of the details, “the score takes care of itself.” The winning would happen.

   Walsh was strong and confident enough to know that these standards would eventually contribute to victory. He was also humble enough to know that when victory would happen was not something he could predict. That it happened faster than for any coach in history? Well, that was a fortuitous break of the game. It was not because of his grand vision. In fact, in his second season, a coach complained to the owner that Walsh was too caught up in minutiae and had no goals to win. Walsh fired that coach for tattling.

   We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours. So we can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that come our way. Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks. Or even: I thought this could happen. Of course you didn’t really know all along—or if you did, it was more faith than knowledge. But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself?

   Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story—and turns us into caricatures—while we still have to live it. As the author Tobias Wolff writes in his novel Old School, these explanations and stories get “cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration.”

   Bill Walsh understood that it was really the Standard of Performance—the deceptively small things—that was responsible for the team’s transformation and victory. But that’s too boring for newspaper headlines. It’s why he ignored it when they called him “the Genius.”

   To accept the title and the story wouldn’t be a harmless personal gratification. These narratives don’t change the past, but they do have the power to negatively impact our future.

   His players shortly proved the risks inherent in letting a story go to their heads. Like most of us, they wanted to believe that their unlikely victory occurred because they were special. In the two seasons after their first Super Bowl, the team failed terribly—partly due to the dangerous confidence that accompanies these kinds of victories—losing 12 of 22 games. This is what happens when you prematurely credit yourself with powers you don’t yet have control of. This is what happens when you start to think about what your rapid achievements say about you and begin to slacken the effort and standards that initially fueled them.

   Only when the team returned wholeheartedly to the Standard of Performance did they win again (three more Super Bowls and nine conference or division championships in a decade). Only when they stopped with the stories and focused on the task at hand did they begin to win like they had before.

   Here’s the other part: once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least—because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller. If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before.

   Facts are better than stories and image. The twentieth-century financier Bernard Baruch had a great line: “Don’t try to buy at the bottom and sell at the top. This can’t be done—except by liars.” That is, people’s claims about what they’re doing in the market are rarely to be trusted. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has talked about this temptation. He reminds himself that there was “no aha moment” for his billion-dollar behemoth, no matter what he might read in his own press clippings. The founding of a company, making money in the market, or the formation of an idea is messy. Reducing it to a narrative retroactively creates a clarity that never was and never will be there.

   When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people’s stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned. There was no grand narrative. You should remember—you were there when it happened.

   A few years ago, one of the founders of Google gave a talk in which he said that the way he judges prospective companies and entrepreneurs is by asking them “if they’re going to change the world.” Which is fine, except that’s not how Google started. (Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two Stanford PhDs working on their dissertations.) It’s not how YouTube started. (Its founders weren’t trying to reinvent TV; they were trying to share funny video clips.) It’s not how most true wealth was created, in fact.

   Investor Paul Graham (who invested in Airbnb, reddit, Dropbox, and others), working in the same city as Walsh a few decades later, explicitly warns startups against having bold, sweeping visions early on. Of course, as a capitalist, he wants to fund companies that massively disrupt industries and change the world—that’s where the money is. He wants them to have “frighteningly ambitious” ideas, but explains, “The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things.” He’s saying you don’t make a frontal attack out of ego; instead, you start with a small bet and iteratively scale your ambitions as you go. His other famous piece of advice, “Keep your identity small,” fits well here. Make it about the work and the principles behind it—not about a glorious vision that makes a good headline.

   Napoleon had the words “To Destiny!” engraved on the wedding ring he gave his wife. Destiny was what he’d always believed in, it was how he justified his boldest, most ambitious ideas. It was also why he overreached time and time again, until his real destiny was divorce, exile, defeat, and infamy. A great destiny, Seneca reminds us, is great slavery.

   There is a real danger in believing it when people use the word “genius”—and it’s even more dangerous when we let hubris tell ourselves we are one. The same goes for any label that comes along with a career: are we suddenly a “filmmaker,” “writer,” “investor,” “entrepreneur,” or “executive” because we’ve accomplished one thing? These labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place. From that place, we might think that success in the future is just the natural next part of the story—when really it’s rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck.

   Certainly Google’s alienation from its own roots (confusing vision and potential with scientific and technological prowess) will cause it to stumble soon enough. It fact, the public failures of projects like Google Glass and Google Plus might be evidence of it already. They’re not alone. Too often, artists who think it was “inspiration” or “pain” that fueled their art and create an image around that—instead of hard work and sincere hustle—will eventually find themselves at the bottom of a bottle or on the wrong end of a needle.

   The same goes for us, whatever we do. Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here.

   Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.





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