Chapter 24 


I never look back, except to find out about mistakes . . . I only see danger in thinking back about things you are proud of.


On April 16, 2000, the New England Patriots drafted an extra quarterback out of the University of Michigan. They’d scouted him thoroughly and had their eye on him for some time. Seeing that he was still available, they took him. It was the 6th round and the 199th pick of the draft.

   The young quarterback’s name was Tom Brady.

   He was fourth string at the beginning of his rookie season. By his second season, he was a starter. New England won the Super Bowl that year. Brady was named MVP.

   In terms of return on investment, it’s probably the single greatest draft pick in the history of football: four Super Bowl rings (out of 6 appearances), 14 starting seasons, 172 wins, 428 touchdowns, 3 Super Bowl MVPs, 58,000 yards, 10 Pro Bowls, and more division titles than any quarterback in history. It’s not even finished paying dividends. Brady may still have many more seasons left in him.

   So you’d think that the Patriots’ front office would be ecstatic with how it turned out, and indeed, they were. They were also disappointed—deeply so—in themselves. Brady’s surprising abilities meant that the Patriots’ scouting reports were way off. For all their evaluations of players, they’d somehow missed or miscalculated all of his intangible attributes. They’d let this gem wait until the sixth round. Someone else could have drafted him. More than that, they didn’t even know they were right about Brady until injuries knocked out Drew Bledsoe, their prized starter, and forced them to realize his potential.

   So, even though their bet paid off, the Patriots honed in on the specific intelligence failure that could have prevented the pick from happening in the first place. Not that they were nit-picking. Or indulging in perfectionism. They had higher standards of performance to adhere to.

   For years, Scott Pioli, director of personnel for the Patriots, kept a photo on his desk of Dave Stachelski, a player the team had drafted in the 5th round, but who never made it through training camp. It was a reminder: You’re not as good as you think. You don’t have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.

   Coach John Wooden was very clear about this too. The scoreboard was not the judge of whether he or the team had achieved success—that wasn’t what constituted “winning.” Bo Jackson wouldn’t get impressed when he hit a home run or ran for a touchdown because he knew “he hadn’t done it perfect. ” (In fact, he didn’t ask for the ball after his first hit in major-league baseball for that reason—to him it was “just a ground ball up the middle.”) 

   This is characteristic of how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s.

   The Patriots saw the Brady pick as being more lucky than smart. And though some people are fine giving themselves credit for luck, they weren’t. No one would say the Patriots—or any team in the NFL—are without ego. But in this instance, instead of celebrating or congratulating themselves, they put their heads back down and focused on how to get even better. That’s what makes humility such a powerful force—organizationally, personally, professionally.

   This isn’t necessarily fun, by the way. It can feel like self-inflicted torture sometimes. But it does force you to always keep going, and always improve.

   Ego can’t see both sides of the issue. It can’t get better because it only sees the validation. Remember, “Vain men never hear anything but praise.” It can only see what’s going well, not what isn’t. It’s why you might see egomaniacs with temporary leads, but rarely lasting runs of it.

   For us, the scoreboard can’t be the only scoreboard. Warren Buffett has said the same thing, making a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.

   Harsh, yes. The flip side is that it means being honestly able to be proud and strong during the occasional defeat as well. When you take ego out of the equation, other people’s opinions and external markers won’t matter as much. That’s more difficult, but ultimately a formula for resilience.

   The economist (and philosopher) Adam Smith had a theory for how wise and good people evaluate their actions:

   There are two different occasions upon which we examine our own conduct, and endeavour to view it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it: first, when we are about to act; and secondly, after we have acted. Our views are apt to be very partial in both cases; but they are apt to be most partial when it is of most importance that they should be otherwise. When we are about to act, the eagerness of passion will seldom allow us to consider what we are doing, with the candour of an indifferent person. . . . When the action is over, indeed, and the passions which prompted it have subsided, we can enter more coolly into the sentiments of the indifferent spectator.

   This “indifferent spectator” is a sort of guide with which we can judge our behavior, as opposed to the groundless applause that society so often gives out. Not that it’s just about validation, though.

   Think of all the people who excuse their behavior—politicians, powerful CEOs, and the like—as “not technically illegal.” Think of the times that you’ve excused your own with “no one will know.” This is the moral gray area that our ego loves to exploit. Holding your ego against a standard (inner or indifferent or whatever you want to call it) makes it less and less likely that excess or wrongdoing is going to be tolerated by you. Because it’s not about what you can get away with, it’s about what you should or shouldn’t do.

   It’s a harder road at first, but one that ultimately makes us less selfish and self-absorbed. A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success. A person who can think long term doesn’t pity herself during short-term setbacks. A person who values the team can share credit and subsume his own interests in a way that most others can’t.

   Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want to go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve.

   Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we’re racked with greed, but instead, we’re inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.





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