One of my enduring favorite expressions is, “Hope is not a strategy.” And yet, I’ve seen in both sports and tech, people quite often believe that it is. In both fields, there’s an often unshakeable belief that the latest innovation or “breakthrough” will either make up for fundamental inadequacies or will unlock progress at some heretofore unthinkable rate. This tends to go further in the tech world than in the sporting world, at least in part because human physiology is much more bounded than technological progress. But in both areas, the term “potential” is used as justification for far more than it should be. (I realize the term “tech” is fairly vague, but I think it’s an acceptable catchall here.)
High-performance pursuits, regardless of discipline, tend to have a great deal in common with each other. Classic military texts such as Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book Of Five Rings, Claus von Clausewitz’s On War, and A. M. Gray’s Warfighting are staples in both sport and business. As an individual athlete, I never found books about large-scale military strategy to be particularly useful, but the story of the lone samurai who won every battle was undeniably appealing, especially when I was younger. The sport-as-war analogy does fall down at times. In particular, a loss does not actually equate to death, though at times I certainly felt that way. But adapting learnings from other fields can have a way of providing a fresh perspective. As a now retired professional athlete, I find it interesting what lessons I bring from my sporting life to my work as a game developer. And, as a developer in a necessarily creative endeavor, I am also fascinated by what lessons come back out from making games and websites and can be applied to other areas where the end goal is something as nebulous as “fun” or “AAA quality.”
My worlds collided in a happy way over the past week thanks to three distinct but clearly – at least to me – related articles. The first was a profile of the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the marathon and arguably the greatest distance runner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge. The second covered the training methods of the most successful sporting team in the world over the past twenty or so years, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. And the last was a summary of the keynote speech at the recent Facebook Connect conference from game development icon John Carmack, founder of id software (creator of Quake, Doom, and more).
[N.B. the All Blacks article is behind a paywall at The Telegraph. It’s telling how good the article is that there are a number of articles that basically just re-hash the content, which is actually how I first came across it. Several of these have been taken down, as they are pretty clearly simple plagiarism. I’ve linked the original article here for that reason. Likewise, the Ars Technica article is a summary of Carmack’s keynote, which you can find on YouTube if you prefer the source material.]
The common theme of all these articles is a focus on simplicity and, especially, pragmatism. The All Blacks have a great analogy, describing their training plan as being built around “large rocks” (metaphorical ones, though lifting the modern equivalent of actual large rocks is very much a part of it). Both the All Blacks and Kipchoge make room for innovation, but it’s ancillary to their success, not foundational. Kipchoge, in particular, is a huge fan of the “superfoam” shoes that have quickly obliterated the minimalist running shoe fad, both for the performance they offer on race day and, perhaps more importantly, because they allow him to run more (and/or recover faster) because his legs take less of a beating. Innovation is useful, but only in so far as it supports the fundamentals.
(Quick aside – the superfoam shoes have made a huge impact in the marathon, with an obvious and direct correlation to the reduction in times, but they have almost certainly had an even larger impact in long-distance triathlon, where pure leg fatigue in the marathon was a major limiter to performance; these shoes have made marathoners faster, but they’ve made Ironman marathoners a lot faster…)
To help provide perspective to their players, the All Blacks call innovations “grains of sand” to appropriately differentiate them from the “large rocks” that form the foundation of their training program and their success. This focus on fundamentals is neither new nor all that surprising in the sporting world, though I certainly managed to repeatedly forget it during my own career. The stories about John Wooden teaching his players at UCLA how to lace their shoes are the stuff of legend, though they are also easy to lose sight of when the sire call of the latest “game changer” starts sounding. Tech seems to have many more actual stories of success from at least seemingly “blue sky” approaches to problem solving. And so I did find it surprising how much Carmack, who seems outwardly obsessed with pure innovation, is similarly pragmatic in his focus. In discussing the “metaverse,” Carmack is particularly incisive about what he calls “architectural astronauts.” Architectural astronauts is easily my new favorite pejorative, perfectly encapsulating people who like to hide behind buzzwords and the idea of the “big picture.”
The idea of the metaverse, Carmack says, can be “a honeypot trap for ‘architecture astronauts.'” Those are the programmers and designers who “want to only look at things from the very highest levels,” he said, while skipping the “nuts and bolts details” of how these things actually work.
The Ars article summarizes Carmack’s approach nicely with the heading, “Build products, not architecture.” Carmack sets clear – and critically objective – goals around building an actual thing. As with Kipchoge and the All Blacks, he starts with a concrete idea of what, exactly, he wants to achieve. This is not to say that infrastructure and architecture is not important; but rather to say those things are built on top of actual decisions and actual work. In a separate article, when asked why he was so successful, Kipchoge said quite simply, “I think I am doing more long runs than any other marathoner.” Kipchoge wins because he builds more “products” – and more useful ones – than anyone else. It’s common in sport to attribute success to training and process and preparation, while business tends to favor attributing success to “vision.” But as Carmack says, “I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse.“
When I was successful in my own career as an athlete, that success always followed from a focus on the near term while keeping the larger goal in the back of my mind. Keeping the outcome at a healthy distance is critical. I was lucky to be exposed to this approach early in my career. The most incredible lesson in this regard came from supporting Simon Whitfield in his preparation for the Beijing Olympics from 2005 through 2008. While the goal was always for Simon to win a medal, that goal was rarely something spoke about. We focused, under the guidance of Joel Filliol, on the day to day. Maybe the week to week. The Olympics were less of destination than they were a North Star, something to help keep us heading in the right general direction until that final moment when he broke away from the leaders with about 400m to go and, after a thrilling sprint, came away with a Silver. While I certainly strayed too often from this path, I attribute a great deal of what I was able to achieve to being exposed to this process-driven mentality in the first place.
Clear and – critically – objective goals are essential. One great thing about sport is that you cannot deny failure. I hate phrases like, “you win or you learn.” That’s nonsense. Sometimes you just lose. And learn nothing more than losing sucks. Sometimes a win can teach you a lot – that you’re more capable than you realized or that being lucky is sometimes more important than being good. And sometimes it teaches you nothing – or the wrong thing. Wining and losing are often related – but nevertheless separate – pursuits from learning. Because of this, the clearest big picture goals actually come from a relentless focus on practical and measurable milestones. As Carmack says, “some of the technology… turned out to be reusable enough to be applied to other things. But it was always driven by the technology itself, and the technology was what enabled the product and then almost accidentally enabled some other things after it.” In the sporting world, training drives more and better training, and that training enables success in competition. And sometimes, almost accidentally, all that training as a rower turns into a decade-plus career as a professional triathlete. Or the forced setback of a near fatal accident turns into a World Championship victory.
When I would set a goal and try to work backwards from it – say achieving a top-10 in Kona, I was rarely, if ever, successful. But when I focused on execution and consistency in my training, I always had my very best performances. I was fortunate in my career to work with several great coaches, and they critically maintained a macro-scale plan for what we were trying to achieve. And I don’t believe Carmack is disputing the importance of either planning or plans, but more highlight the importance of practicality and achievability. How, exactly, are we going to do this? And what specific problem does it solve? Sport can be particularly useful as a razor here, since it’s often much more obvious when a plan is failing due to injury, illness, or simple lack of performance. And while there is certainly no shortage of “architectural astronauts” in sport, they tend more often to use “innovation” as a cover for simple fraud and cheating. Here as well, there is sadly a great deal of crossover between the sporting and tech worlds; the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos has a lot in common Lance Armstrong and US Postal, though at least Armstrong actually won races. Grandiose claims and bravado tend to go a lot further in the tech world than they do in the sporting world, because it’s that much easier to deny a loss.
While there are certainly those athletes who set out to cheat, I think most often cheating is simply a means to an impossible end. In tech, perversely, the actual need to cheat seems much easier to avoid. There seems to be no shortage of Ponzi schemes where the merely the promise of a future payoff seems to satisfy those who should be providing accountability. Holmes’ story is noteworthy in that she actually had to commit fraud, rather than just talking about how the latest buzzword was going to revolutionize the industry. Carmack makes the case that actual innovation derives from solving the problems of today, rather than worrying too much about the problems or tomorrow. Focusing too much on the future makes, “it harder to do the things that you’re trying to do today in the name of things you hope to do tomorrow, and [then] it’s not actually there or doesn’t actually work right when you get around to wanting to do that.” This is why I love refactoring work; it’s not because the decisions that were made were bad. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Refactoring is only ever possible because of the success that previous decisions around “today’s” (now yesterday’s) problems enabled. It’s a waste of time to think, “if we/I’d known then what I know now…” Rather, given what you know now, what will you actually do now?
I don’t think there is any new or profound insight in all of this. I was simply captivated by the commonality between such seemingly different pursuits. What, exactly, do an explosive team sport, a solitary endurance sport, and the creation of an alternate, virtual universe have in common? Turns out quite a lot. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been exposed to such variety of experience in my life that I can find value and draw lessons for myself from each of them.