You Don’t Rise to the Occasion

August ninth, 2009 was the day Cris Collinsworth sat down across the table from Al Michaels on NBC’s venerable Sunday Night Football and evicted John Madden from our living rooms. We lost a lot that day, but we also gained something dubious; the concept that football teams, like Olympic hopefuls, Presidents, and divas before them, could “rise to the occasion.”

For ten years, Cris has been telling us that this QB or that tight end could or could not rise to the occasion of “insert big game.” Today we’re going to talk about why that bunk is the province of Monday Morning Quarterbacks, and not remotely useful to the top performers who make up the esteemed readership of this Letter. You already know that you don’t rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training.

What’s your Default?

There aren’t that many differences between folks who are simply exceptional and those who are the very best. What’s the difference between a second string QB like Matt Moore and the bright shining star one injury away from him? Is the journeyman even half a percentile of skill removed from Patrick Mahomes in skill? Given the number of QB prospects pumped through top high schools and colleges, the real figure is closer to a tenth of a percentile.

I’m writing this Sunday night, after a full day of hearing about how Mahomes overcame two early interceptions to rise to the occasion during the second half of the Super Bowl and bring the Hunts a well-deserved ring. It’s survivorship bias, pure and simple, that infects us with this uninformed perspective. When Mahomes threw his first no-look pass five years ago, we all saw a 19 year old rising to the occasion. Ask his Texas Tech teammates and they’ll tell you he drilled the no-look obsessively before throwing it in a game.

How about his dramatic lefty pass to Tyreek Hill in October of 2018 with a hungry Von Miller on his heels? That must have been improvised, an example of a brilliant young man inspired by circumstance. Sorry to disappoint. Here’s the footage of him drilling that too.

It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that at the high end of the standard deviation spectrum, the differences between closely matched individuals start to splay out dramatically. This is as true in the worlds of investing and business as it is on the gridiron. Patrick Mahomes’ default really is that high.

In a past life, when I played violin professionally, the concept of skipping a day of practice was foreign. I can remember only one occasion between the ages of three and seventeen when I went 24 hours without devoting at least 3 of them to scales, etudes, and technical preparation of pieces. Not doing so would mean certain public failure, and — worse — the permanent irreversible degradation of all the skills I had accumulated up to that point.

I no longer possess that work ethic, perhaps because the stakes are no longer as high. But I know it exists. That’s where my anchor point is set. I know that unless you can play the music backwards with your eyes closed, there’s no way you’ll be able to play it with world-class expression on a stage lit by the withering gaze of thousands of critical eyes. Your default needs to be set in practice. Then, you’ve earned the privilege of enjoying yourself in performance.

3 Ways to Make Training Relevant Again

Why is training something that we give up after we stop competing or performing? This secret is one that we knew in high school or college, and we’ve let it slip away from us. Here are three ways to bring the honest power of training back into your life:

  1. Practice your pitches. It continues to amaze me how many people walk into VC meetings asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars without having practiced their pitch end to end. Folks will spend months perfecting every word of a deck, then fully wing a pitch with their dream funder. Same goes for general partners pitching LPs for tens of millions of dollars. Boggles my mind. I used to like using local angel groups for practice, but even untrained civilians can help you prepare for the pressure of running through your spiel for the first time.
  2. Give yourself homework. As soon as we left school, the concept of doing work outside of job responsibilities started looking silly. Life is busy enough already, isn’t it? Don’t let this muscle atrophy. Convince yourself that you’re capable of putting in the work to raise your default up to a level that you’re comfortable unveiling publicly.
  3. Get public accountability. Chances to test yourself — perform and get live feedback — are rare in adult life. Don’t let the real deal be the first time you do it. Find opportunities to prepare, deliver, and accept critiques whether they’re aligned with your work or not. Many people suggest toastmasters for this application, though I’m personally unfamiliar. Adjunct professorship and performance-driven hobbies are both accessible ways to scratch this itch.

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