Few childhood memories stand out more for me than experiencing the USFL Oakland Invaders football practice from the sidelines. The crunch, pop and bang of colliding helmets and pads mixed with heavy grunts produced a sense of awe and excitement that deepened my enthusiasm for the game. The bigger rush washed over me though when my brother put a sweaty arm around me after that practice and ruffled up my hair. Messed up hair, dirt and grime were imperceptible in that moment—I was enjoying a piece of boy heaven. All of this coupled with loyalty to my brother and the several NFL teams he played for, however, could not turn me from cheering for my San Francisco 49ers. After all, the Dynasty created by Bill Walsh, Montana, Owens, Craig, Rice, Lott and others in the 80s was more than a fan could ask for. In those days it didn’t matter how far behind they were, when Montana went under center I knew he could orchestrate a winning drive! Back then it was all about entertainment, but now I realize that incredible leadership, discipline and work ethic made both my brother’s achievements (later as an entrepreneur/founder of Max Muscle) and that incredible 49ers’ run possible.
A blog post by Dan Coyle, author of the Talent Code, points out that the creation of winning organizations is not so much about selecting the most talented but rather the most determined. The data he analyzed showed that in spite of intense measuring systems used in drafting professional athletes, success in selecting the next star performer seemed to be more luck than science. For example, the NFL subjects prospective recruits to rigorous evaluations in the “combines” where they measure explosiveness, speed, agility, strength, etc. At the end of the day they know which players are literally, bigger, faster and stronger and they are generally the ones selected. He observed however, that only 50% of these biggest/fastest athletes are still found in the league after four years. So if they are the most dominate specimens, why are so many cut from NFL teams? The author suggests that perhaps growth potential should be measured and not just current skills and ability. A measurement of grit has proven to be a better predictor. “Grit?” you say, “But how on earth can you measure that?” Actually, there is a study, referenced in Coyle’s post, that does. It suggests that the ability to see long term and take ownership of that vision is a better predictor of success than “raw talent.”
This doesn’t apply just to athletics. A study of John Adam’s life, second president of the United States, reveals many personal weaknesses such as a quick temper and reoccurring feelings of inadequacy. As a young man, a journal entry uncovers how he overcame this. He developed grit because of his ability to see long term and work towards change. He wrote, “I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors…. I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention [on improvement]…” The next day he was frustrated because he slept in, but because he knew where he was headed, he kept moving towards his vision. Now, at that exact moment in his life no one would have selected him to be president of the U.S., Chief Diplomat to Great Britain or delegate to the Continental Congress, but his life illustrates that success is realized by developing a personal growth mindset and pushing past setbacks.
So let’s get back to 1980, the year Coach Bill Walsh firmed up the foundation for the 49ers Dynasty. He was coming off his first season as head coach with a 2-14 losing record and was in the middle of a seven game loosing streak. His combined record to that point made him the “loosing-est” coach in the league. Then in a self-inflicted devastating loss to the Dolphins the next week, the 49ers slid to eight straight defeats. Reflecting on that loss he wrote, “It was a horrible and numbing defeat, overwhelming for me because of its potential impact—a job I had worked for my entire adult life was in jeopardy…I stood on the sideline…emotionally gutted, wondering if I had the strength to get back to our locker room.” Everything from that moment until the plane ride home is a faded blur for Walsh, but the deep depression and anguish that dragged him down to literal sobs as he sat in the darkness in his front row seat of their chartered plane burned an unforgettable memory that motivated him for years to come. Contemplating resignation he recalls trying to describe his anguish, “Everything I had dreamed of professionally for a quarter of a century was in jeopardy just 18 months after being realized. And yet there was something else going on inside me, a ‘voice’ from down deeper than the emotions, something stirring that I had learned over many years in football and, before that, growing up; namely, I must stand and fight again, stand and fight or it was all over.”
After that six hour long flight, he deplaned emotionally drained at 3:15 am and immediately went to work. They won 3 of the next 5 games and went on to win San Francisco’s first Super Bowl the next season. The Dynasty was born on the heels of defeat when a coach who had hit rock bottom turned to grit, determination and hard work to complete the turn-a-round from the worst team in the league to the best.
Anyone who has achieved great success, my brother Joe included, will tell you that defeat and frustration are inevitable, but victory goes to those who apply dedicated work to a clear vision of a desired outcome. As a boy I took 49er wins for granted, failing to fully appreciate what Walsh and Montana went through to thrill me week in and week out. I even took my brother’s business success for granted, not fully understanding the level of dedication it required. Later as a young adult, I took my freedoms for granted not understanding what a John Adams went through to persuade a nation to choose freedom over captivity. Studying their lives and the principles they taught has helped me be more resolved to protect freedom and promote success principles every chance I get.
So whether you are an entrepreneur, parent, business leader or politician it turns out that it is not so much your apparent talent that determine success, but rather your grit. So even if you are inadequate in a real or perceived way or someone else is a little faster, more eloquent or quicker on their feet, John Adams, Bill Walsh and Joe Wells demonstrate that it’s really not “raw talent” that is the greatest determinant of success, but rather determination itself. So if you and our nation are to live free, get clear on your vision of excellence and keep moving towards it because success goes to the “gritty” not those who had it easy.