Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Virtue of Your Unique Limitations
Bill Walsh revolutionized the passing game in the NFL because he had a quarterback who couldn’t pass. Up to the 1960s, in the NFL, passing the ball was barely a complement to running it. In 1960, there were 4,114 total passing attempts. Compare that to 2020 when there were 18,018 passing attempts. The boom began in 1968 with an AFL expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals. As an expansion team, the Bengals then offensive coordinator Bill Walsh said, “we got the dregs, players who never should have been in pro football.” In a league where offenses were built to run the ball, defenses were built to stop the run. Defensive players were big, strong, physical, and mean. If the Bengals were going to advance the ball, it wasn’t going to be through an NFL defense. Walsh’s only option was to pass the ball. But here, again, his options were limited. At the time, if you threw the ball, you threw it 20-30 yards downfield. If Walsh had a quarterback who could throw the ball twenty to thirty yards downfield, he wouldn’t have conceived of doing anything differently. But Walsh had a uniquely ‘limited’ quarterback, Virgil Carter, couldn’t throw the ball twenty yards downfield. “Virgil,” Carter was once told, “if you want to throw the football more than twenty yards you better fill it with helium.” Virgil’s skills, Walsh writes in The Score Takes Care of Itself, “weren’t considered premium assets for an NFL starting quarterback, but that’s all there was. Consequently, I began creating plays that tried to make the most of Virgil’s “limited” abilities.” Walsh had to do what no other coach before thought to do: he engineered an offense built on short passes. In Carter’s first season, he averaged just 5.9 yards per passing attempt. In his second season, 7.3. “People made fun of it,” Walsh said of his new short-pass system. “[They] dismissively called it the nickel-and-dime, dink-and-dunk, fancy-pants, or finesse offense—even the swish-and-sway.” In 1970, the Bengals won the AFC Central Division. In 1971, Carter led the NFL in completion percentage. Walsh took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had the league’s worst record and lowest payroll when Walsh got there. His new quarterback, Steve Deberg, was coming off a 1-10 season where he completed 45.4 percent of his passes. In his first season in Walsh’s system, Deberg threw and completed more passes than any quarterback in NFL history. After that season, the 49ers drafted Deberg’s replacement with their third round draft pick. It was a quarterback “who everyone said was too small and had to weak an arm to play in the NFL.” Michael Lewis writes in The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. It was Joe Montana. In Walsh’s system, Lewis continues, “[Montana] would become, by general consensus, the finest quarterback ever to play the game.” Virgil Carter couldn’t throw the football twenty yards downfield—“that’s how it all started,” Walsh said. “When I was forced to use Virgil.” “It was born of necessity, bred of innovation and creativity applied to existing—and so-called limited—assets.”
Turn To A Distant Analogy
Eighteen years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) was still looking for a solution. Thirty-two thousand gallons of oil was still stuck. That’s enough gallons to drive the U.S. coast to coast four hundred and sixty times. So in 2007, the OSRI posted their problem to InnoCentive—an “Open Innovation Marketplace” where outside “Solvers” offer solutions to a “Seeker’s” “Challenge”. A solution to the OSRI’s Challenge came with a $20,000 reward. A chemist from Illinois named John Davis won. When he saw the Challenge posted on the InnoCentive site, Davis began thinking of analogies unrelated to his specialty. “I visualized the problem as drinking a slushy,” he said. “You end up having to whip around the straw to stir it up. How you make it so you don’t have to work so hard to get that slushy out?” As he thought about the slushy, he remembered a time he helped a friend move some concrete. It was a hot day and the concrete was cementing before they were ready for it to. Davis expressed his concern, and his friend grabbed a concrete vibrator and goes, “watch this.” When the vibrating metal rod touched the concrete, “it fluidized instantly, just like whooosh,” Davis said. It’s like when you shake your slushy in one hand and stir the straw with the other, only the rod does the shaking and the stirring. Davis submitted his idea to use concrete vibrators to fluidize the oil/water slush. “Sometimes you just slap your head,” OSRI research program manager Scott Pegau said, “and go, Well why didn’t I think of that?” Then he answered his own question, “Because we tend to view things with all the information we’ve gathered in our industry, and sometimes that puts us down a path goes into a wall. It’s hard to back up and find another path.” In his book Range, David Epstein notes that Pegau was explaining the Einstellung effect—”a psychology term for the tendency of problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better ones are available.” One way to avoid the Einstellung effect, Epstein writes: “[Frame] problems with distant analogies,” like Davis did.
Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus
In a 2002 talk about speculation in the media (which is being used here as a catch-all for movies, TV, internet, books, newspapers, magazines, etc.), the late author and filmmaker Michael Crichton coined what he called the “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.” Crichton named it after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann because “I once discussed it with Murray, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to the effect.” Crichton explains that the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is something we’ve all experienced: “you open the newspaper to an article on a subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the ‘wet streets cause rain’ stories…In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in the story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs [or anything you don’t know as well], and read as if the rest of the newspaper is somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page and forget what you know.” Crichton says the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect operates in no other parts of life. “In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means, ‘false in one thing, false in everything.’ But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.”
Blaming The Weather Is A Trap
This was the subject line of a recent Seth Godin blog post, one of the first things I see in my inbox every morning. Don’t tie external forces to your state of mind, Seth writes. “Once we see that we’re able to own our story, we gain a huge amount of power. And we retain that power for as long as we refuse to hand it over to someone else. If the blame and the anger isn’t going to change the situation, better to reclaim our agency instead.” I replied, assuming he wouldn’t see it: The great philosopher coach Shaka Smart was recently asked (on a soon-to-air episode on the Daily Stoic podcast) about taking the Marquette job. Specifically, he was asked about moving from Austin to Wisconsin—are you a cold weather kind of guy? Without a beat, “I’m a dress-for-the-weather kind of guy.” Eight minutes later, Seth emailed back: “perfect!”
Free Your Mind From Input From Other Minds
In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport borrows a definition of solitude from the book Lead Yourself First. First he points out how we tend to associate solitude with physical isolation. It’s Thoreau in his cabin in the middle of the woods. Or Gates’ “think week” in his cabin in the middle of the woods. Actually, solitude is more accessible. “Solitude is about what’s happening in your own brain, not the environment around you…[It’s] a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.” If you are lone in the Australian outback but listening to a podcast—you are not in a state of solitude. If you are sardined on a NYC subway but with your eyes closed, thinking—you are in a state of solitude. Though solitude is always accessible, so are smartphones and podcasts and audio books and YouTube videos and etc. “It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life,” Cal writes before compellingly/alarmingly detailing the ill-effects of “chronic solitude deprivation” and the alienation from our own minds. So now I’m daily trying to block out some time for solitude.
Be Interested In Boredom
Last weekend, I picked Robert Greene up from the airport, and we drove forty-five minutes to Bastrop, TX, where we were meeting Ryan Holiday for dinner. I had spoken to Robert on the phone twice before when were helping a little with a project he was working on, but I was very nervous. What would we talk about? Would it be awkward silence for the most part? What questions might I ask? Robert’s one of the great minds of our time—what/how/why…After the how-was-the-flight base was covered, we talked about researching, writing, his horrible luck with research assistants since Ryan, physical vs. digital note-taking, our mutual pen fetishes (mine with the Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip 0.7mm. His with dip fountain pens), the chapter he’d recently finished writing for his next book, the chapter he’s currently working on, and for forty-five minutes, there wasn’t a break in conversation. Then we parked and on the walk to the restaurant, I asked Robert about what he said about research assistants—he estimated he’s had twenty since Ryan and none were any good. What made them no good? Some didn’t grasp the spirit of the material he looks for, some couldn’t discern what was interesting from what wasn’t, some wilted like a flower at the first piece of feedback or criticism. Then he stopped, thought, and said, “without exception, they weren’t interested in boredom. It’s a dividing line between people who are successful and people who are not.” Mastery requires practice, he said, it requires boredom and tedium, doing the same thing over and over and over. You have to be able to sit with boredom. (File under or next to James Clear’s advice to Fall In Love With Boredom).