I love playing and competing in sports. I played baseball and basketball all through high school, and have continued to play other sports into my late 30s ensuring my doctors can stay gainfully employed and put their kids through college. But I am also what some may call “vertically challenged” at 5’8” (although if you were to track down a program from my varsity basketball team, somehow I have shrunk down from the 5’10” I was listed at).
On the basketball court, all things equal, another player who is 6’7” and also athletic, has a giant unfair advantage over me. I have to work two or three times harder to possibly pull even with that person…and then what happens if that 6’7” athlete decides to also work a little bit? I might become the starting point guard of my high school varsity team, while they will be All-Conference, and likely earn a college scholarship.
Once at college, our metaphorical 6’7” player will be competing against other gifted All-Conference athletes. Now the people in that group who decide that simply being vertically gifted and enjoying the game isn’t sufficient anymore, and the work they put in on their skills, strength, agility, and strategy will become the key to differentiating themselves. Their natural athleticism is only a platform they can build upon. Because they won the genetic lottery for basketball, they are able to put more time, energy, and effort into the tiny nuances of the game that give them a slight edge over their opponents—such tiny nuances the average spectator wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference.
For the very small percentage of players who separate themselves in college to become one of 60 across the globe who are drafted into the NBA, they now enter a world where they are competing against peers who are all likely the best athlete to ever come out of their hometown. And they’ve all worked on their speed. They’ve all honed their agility. They’ve all dialed in their accuracy. The differentiating factor at that level is almost exclusively between their ears.
So in order to even compete at that level, athletes in all sports have to work really hard to leverage the genetic lottery they won in a very specific way; they won’t be successful at every sport. That same 6’7” high-potential NBA draft pick would assuredly fail mightily at being a jockey. The jockeys who ride racehorses are typically under 5’ tall and weigh around 100 pounds. It goes to show that only when you determine what you are uniquely situated to do can you leverage your (oftentimes dormant) competitive advantage.
I find when working with my team on their individual unfair advantages, the through line reveals itself in the stories they tell on these 3 questions:
When your friends or family get together, what stories do they routinely tell about you as a kid?
My mom always tells stories of how the minute any appliance broke in our house (growing up on a farm without a lot of money, I knew better than to take apart anything usable) I would immediately grab tools from the garage and start opening it up. Not with the intention of trying to fix it or getting it running again, but just because I was curious on how it worked, how the pieces came together to make it work…the other most common story ends with my older brother hog tying me to our piano and shoving a sock in my mouth; a story showcasing my…umm…persistence.
What is something that people are amazed you are able to do, but you think it’s nothing because it comes so naturally? What class in high school in college just made sense to you without having to study as hard?
My college economics class just clicked for me. I was able to sit in class, listen to my professors, and think, of course that is how supply/demand works…price elasticity, utils per dollar…so that’s why I make those purchasing decisions. My test prep would just be meeting up with my friends who had been studying all week the night before the test, asking them where they were stuck, and then whiteboarding out the concepts. It just made sense to me.
If you didn’t have to worry about living expenses (which is different than winning the lottery), what would you do?
I love to learn. My curiosity is insatiable. I love figuring out the changeable variables of things and trying to come up with an improved approach. I drive my wife nuts when cooking because I will rarely make the same thing the same way twice. I love tinkering and modifying the recipe and cooking to taste, seeing if I can make it even better…which most of the time I do, sometimes, it’s frozen pizza night.
How would you answer those questions? What connection, what thread do you see between and among your stories. How can you relate that back to your work and what gives you an unfair advantage? When you can consistently realign into your work into this zone, you will have more fun doing better work.