Is It Baggage Or Experience?

Joe Thornton

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the narratives that we construct around our lives, and how they influence the way we see the world.

Point in case: The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks are going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history — after years of coming up just short. Wrote the San Jose Mercury News this week:

…their 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals came with an air of the surreal. This was Sisyphus getting the boulder up the hill. This was Wile E. Coyote catching The Road Runner.

Two guys on the Sharks — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — had played a combined 2,767 games, but never made a Finals. And the narrative around them had always been about one thing: Baggage. Any discussion of their playoff success required talking about their many previous playoff failures. This was their fourth trip to the conference finals since ’04 — but they’d never been able to get over the hump.

Then this year, they did.

And suddenly, the narrative’s changed. For a player like Thornton, the media’s now talking about his 150 career playoff games as a sign of experience, not futility. Suddenly, he’s a veteran player who’s made it! The failures that came before were a test of his mettle, not proof that he couldn’t get it done in the clutch!

We’ve been through this before with so many great athletes. LeBron was the superstar who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (Twice!) Phil Mickelson was the golfer who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (He’s since won five majors!) The Red Sox couldn’t do it, until they did. (Twice!) The San Francisco Giants didn’t have what it took, until they did. (Three titles in five years!) Alex Ovechkin couldn’t win it all, until… OK, I guess I’m still waiting on that one.(1)

Point is: We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story. It’s never too late — not even for a 19-year veteran like Joe Thornton — to breakthrough and change the narrative forever.

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That photo of Joe Thornton was taken by Flickr user pointnshoot and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

  1. ☹ ☹ ☹

Always Trust Your Cape.

I don’t get worked up much when musicians die. But Guy Clark — a wonderful country singer/songwriter — died today, and I went digging for a great song of his, “The Cape.” Specifically, this lyric:

Well, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith /
Spread your arms and hold your breath /
And always trust your cape

I love that so much — it’s so full of hope, isn’t it? I remember hearing that song for the first time years ago, driving somewhere in Texas, and absolutely hanging on to the idea. I wasn’t sure that what I wanted to do was the right thing, but I needed to hear from someone else that it was OK to take the leap anyway. And then that song came on the radio, and I clung to that fortune cookie of a chorus.

Thanks for that, Guy. We’ll miss you.

It Takes A Lot To Know A Little.

I’m obsessed with learning about the habits of people I respect.(1) It’s no surprise, but: Great people often have awesome habits.

Take my favorite sports announcer, a guy named Bill Raftery. If you’re a college basketball fan, you know his catchphrases: “Onions!” “With a kiss!” “Send it in, big fella!” Watching a game with him is like watching a game with an old mentor: He knows everything and sees everything, but there’s never a moment where’s he not trying to make you feel comfortable.

The wisdom isn’t just an act. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal did a profile on Raftery where they revealed the secret behind his madness: A yellow legal pad stuffed with game notes and scouting reports on every team he covers:

Produced while he watches a half-dozen tapes of each team he’s assigned to cover, Mr. Raftery’s one-page, double-sided reports are written in capital letters and a tiny, crowded scrawl. But his 60-odd team reports are also meticulously structured and filled with countless diagrams, notes on player tendencies, strategic predictions and statistics that could only be the work of a person whose life is set to the rhythm of balls bouncing on wood.

The reports “are like the random etchings of John Nash from ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ ” said Ian Eagle, the CBS play-by-play announcer who has worked alongside Mr. Raftery for years. But, Mr. Eagle added, “because his personality is so strong and effervescent, his basketball preparation often gets overlooked.”

This spring, CBS aired a documentary on Raftery, and they showed off his game notes. I couldn’t believe the detail in them.

Bill Raftery's game notes

If anything, the Journal article understated how in-depth he goes with his game prep. His print is tiny, and he squeezes notes into every square inch of those yellow pages. If you watch a Raftery-called game, he won’t bring up 95% of the stuff in his notes.

So why does he do it?

“I think it takes a lot to know a little,” he said in the documentary. “You try and know everything that they do, not to be a know-it-all, but just to be aware.”

It takes a lot to know a little. How great a motto is that? You study and prep for any situation. Most of the prep work will go unnoticed, but that’s OK. Whatever happens, you’ll be ready.

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Working With The Best People Matters Most.

Buildings, by Alex Wong

Here’s something I’ve noticed about people who read a lot of business books that promise big ideas about the future of our industries:(1)(2)

Those people tend to put a lot of faith in systems. On a Sunday, they’ll finish a book about the latest trend coming out of Silicon Valley, and on Monday, it’ll be the future of everything. Those books often promise the secrets to unlock great work. They’ll say: “They do it this way at Company X, so we need to switch everything to do it that way, too! This is the future!”

But to me, they’re not gospel.

I like business books, don’t get me wrong! And I’m a fan of great routines that can help teams work faster/better/smarter, and of big ideas that can crystalize a team’s mission.

But systems or big ideas aren’t everything.

People are.

I believe that great people, working together with the right tools and a clear mission, are unstoppable. Ask me about my team sometime — I’ll gush about them. I think they have the potential to do great work that can have impact on millions of lives. (In fact, they’re doing that already!) I believe in them, and I believe they are smart, hard-working, and flexible enough to take on ambitious work.

If I had to start with only one thing — the right systems, the right ideas, or the right people — I’d always choose people. A good system or idea is only as good as the people working to make it happen.

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Sometimes, you want a random, generic image for a post like this — and hey, this one by Alex Wong from Unsplash worked!

  1. **WARNING: YOU’RE ABOUT TO READ A VAGUE AND OVERLY GENERAL STATEMENT, BUT HANG IN THERE WITH ME.**
  2. FWIW: I spent a lot of time in airports last month, and I spent a lot of that time in airport bookstores, and seeing the same business books in so many cities drove me a little mad.