The More You Risk the More You Learn?

Here’s a relationship I’m exploring right now:

The amount you learn is proportionate to the amount you risk.

I’m not sure if it’s universally valid.  There are probably exceptions.  Still, the more I think about it the more I like it.

It’s important to note that “risk” is subjective.  An increase in risk is an increase in the probability and/or magnitude of a result that forces you to do something you’d prefer not to.  Risk can be material, emotional, physical, or psychological.

If you work for an established, large corporation you will learn things.  If you work for an early stage startup you will learn more things.  If you start your own company you will learn even more.  Each stage ratchets up the risk, in this case financial and social (status loss in event of failure), and the learning goes with it.

Physical risk seems to follow the same pattern.  To learn new moves on the court or field you have to be willing to try them.  Each new move has an increased risk of failure or even injury.  Adventure athletes can probably attest to this at the most extreme, where loss of life is a legitimate risk the physical and mental knowledge gained is likely tremendous.

Even in pure intellectual pursuits I expect this is true.  Sitting and reading or contemplating seems an inherently riskless activity but it’s not.  What you can learn is limited by what you explore, what questions you’re willing to ask, and how far you’re willing to go for answers.  If you safely examine comfortable, socially acceptable ideas you may learn a few things.  But the real learning comes when you push yourself and explore things with potentially risky ramifications.  If your beliefs were to change how uncomfortable would it make you?

This doesn’t mean intellectual risk taking is simply reading people diametrically opposed to your own views.  This is one of the least risky things to do.  More likely it involves reading someone reasonable with a number of foundational beliefs in common but with some unexpected angle or paradigm you’ve never considered.  Imagine a knowledgeable libertarian, for example, reading a radical socialist.  Not very risky.  It’s easy to predict what will be argued and responses are already at hand.  It’s riskier for a libertarian to read an anarchist who builds on the same foundation but extends the ideas into more radical territory – territory that might make one seem “impractical” at cocktail parties.

So what does it mean if the more you risk the more you learn?

The conclusion shouldn’t be that more risk is inherently good.  We all love the word “learning” but there is nothing inherently good about learning either.  Don’t necessarily feel guilt for not risking and therefore learning more.  There are plenty of instances where reducing risk, and therefore learning, is the better path.  I’m sure if I played chicken with an oncoming car I’d learn a lot about myself that couldn’t be learned any other way.  Doesn’t mean I should do it.  I’m not sure knowledge helps if you’re dead (then again, how can I know without trying…)

But I think there are some valuable implications to the risk/learning relationship.  If you know your own goals and are honest about them it can help you make decisions.  If you place a tremendously high value on learning something in particular you might consider higher risk situations that will impart a higher level of knowledge.

This is related but (I think) a little bit different than Nassim Taleb’s powerful concept of “skin in the game“.  Skin in the game is about getting more value out of the decisions you do make by being more invested in the outcome, whereas the risk/learning relationship is perhaps slightly broader and has implications for the kind of decisions you make in the first place.

Football is Not a Physical Game

If I asked you to describe the essential features of football, I bet you’d say something about the physical, sometimes violent nature of the game.  I think you’d be wrong.

I’m (slowly) reading Chuck Klosterman’s book, “But What If We’re Wrong?” and thoroughly enjoying it.  There is much to say about the book and I hope to get into more of it in the next podcast episode.  But today I’m thinking about football.

I read a chapter last night about the future, or non-future, of football.  It’s a great bit of analysis/speculation by Klosterman vs. Malcolm Gladwell on the probability of football existing 25 years from now.  I don’t pretend to know the fate of football and find it equally likely that it dies off as thrives.  But there was one assumption embedded in the chapter that I think was wrong, and that might affect the way we analyze the future of the sport.

Football is not a physical game.

The book explores the sport’s potential under the assumption that the key ingredient is a physical showcase and that’s what people either love or hate about it.  I have no doubt that’s what people hate about football, but I am highly skeptical that’s what people love about it.

If viewers were in it for the physical aspects of the game then track & field would be hugely popular.  I can’t think of a more purely physical spectacle than a foot race.  But no one watches foot races.  No one really watches power lifting or standing high jump either.  These are neat physical feats that might gain an occasional YouTube breakout if really extraordinary.  If football were essentially about the physical aspect we’d expect these other, often more extreme, physical activities to be equally beloved.  They’re not because the physical is not the essential part of football.

The essential part of football is mental.

It’s mental in two ways.  The most obvious is strategy.  Football fans love the complex, chess-like strategies in each play, possession, game, and season.  Every match-up involves coaches and players trying to outsmart each other with X’s and O’s.  It’s a really nerdy game when you start to get into the strategy of it.

But that’s just the first mental part, and I think the less important.  If this was the only way in which football was a mental game it would be fairly easy for software or robots or chess to replace it.  But strategy is only a small part of the essential mental aspect of football.

The other, less acknowledged way that football is a predominantly mental game is the individual and collective mental strength, emotional control, adaptability, and creativity required.  How to perform under high expectations vs. no expectations.  How to handle off-the-field distractions.  How to play when you’re hated by fans or teammates.  How to succeed on a play after failing at it the previous three times.  How to battle a choker reputation.

That this mental aspect of the game is the essential feature is revealed in the way we talk about football.  Listen to the in-game commentators or sports radio the day after.  We say things like, “How will they respond to that touchdown drive?”  That’s not a question of a physical response.  We know exactly what they’ll do physically.  Run really fast in a slant pattern and put up their hands.  “Respond” is a mental word.  We’re asking how they will handle the emotional toll of a turnover.  We discuss whether the QB has a short enough memory to not let it get to him.  We discuss whether or not a player can “win the locker room” not by physical prowess, but leadership qualities.  We love the game because it is an incredibly rich environment in which every conceivable emotional and mental state is experienced and each player must determine how to navigate the challenges inside their own heads.  We don’t spend hours after the game discussing exactly how many inches a DB jumped to make an interception, but we do spend hours discussing how his constant trash talk got in the head of the slot receiver causing him to pull up short on his route.

As a poster child for the violent physical nature of the sport the book references fanatical coach Jim Harbaugh and his comments about football being the last bastion of masculine physicality.  But even Harbaugh is really all about the mental game.  Whether or not he believes football’s real essence is physical, his success or failure as a coach will not be determined by how much his front line can bench press.  That’s going to be roughly the same as his competitors.  It will be determined by how well they respond to his wild antics and tough guy persona.  Will it inspire them and create the conditions for mental toughness, or will it patronize and annoy them and create mutiny?  That’s what everyone is watching Harbaugh to see.  That’s what his fans and detractors are discussing.

All physical activities have a mental component, but the degree can differ greatly.  We love football because of its astronomically high degree of mental complexity.  This is why soccer, though vastly more accessible, cannot replace football.  It involves strategy (though much less) and mental challenges, but far less diversity and complexity in its situations.  This is why golf is more popular than power-lifting.  The former has a more complex set of mental challenges because it’s not just a single feat repeated, but a series of diverse shots in different conditions with different expectations.

If you accept my argument that football’s essence is mental, not physical, and its core value to consumers is the mental game rather than the speed or violence, what does it mean for the future of the sport?  I’m not sure.  But I think it can help separate the popularity of the sport as a whole from the increasing worry about the violent aspects of it.  It should help us gain clarity as we speculate about what, if anything, might replace football as we know it.  Whatever it is, it can’t just be simulated physical play, or pure strategy.  The demand for a complex combination of strategy and mental agility is large, and if football is to die off some day something equally mentally and emotionally challenging has to fill the void.

PS – The book cites an overall decline in rates of youth participation not just in football, but in all the major organized sports and attributes this to changing values and interests and the emergence of video games.  That may be the cause, but another possible contributor I’ve not heard mentioned is increased specialization.  As these sports grow in money and sophistication, players become more specialized.  That means by age 10 if you’re not pretty serious about a sport it’s harder to join a league than it used to be.  It could be that the casual, recreational participation in sports leagues has fallen while the number of serious specialists has grown.

What You Can Learn from NFL Coaching Trees

If you look into the origin of head coaches in the NFL you’ll find something pretty amazing.  There are only a handful of head coaches past from whom all current head coaches come.  If you want to get really crazy complex, check out this WSJ article and visualization.

The NFL isn’t unique among sports in this respect.  You’ll find a similar phenomenon in college and pro basketball and other sports as well.

This is not the result of rigid rules or imposed design.  It’s the spontaneous order that emerges from the demand for certain very hard to identify and cultivate skills.  Coaching is incredibly nuanced and you can’t tell who will be good at it from a resume or a few interviews.  Those who come up under great coaches and absorb the lessons, gain the trust of players and other coaches, and build a reputation through continued tests of greater and great responsibility end up with head coaching jobs themselves.  Then those that coach under them end up with HC jobs, and on and on.

Not all of them succeed of course, but that’s not surprising.  What’s suprising is how powerful the network and legacy of a single great coach can be.  Today’s NFL is made up of 32 head coaches who are the understudies of just three or four retired HC’s.  It’s pretty crazy when you ponder it.

I think there’s something to be learned from this on a personal level.  I’ve never seen a great coach in sports who does not spawn many apprentices.  I don’t think it’s possible to lead at that level in such a complex organization if you don’t have a cadre of trusted up and comers, many of whom will go on to leadership roles themselves.  If you are trying to build something or be truly great at something you’ll need other people.

Look around you.  Probe your close personal network.  Are the people in it likely to go on to greatness?  Will a family tree of leadership spring from your associates?

If not, you might need to do a gut check and ask why.  Are you too obsessed with controlling or micromanaging everything?  Do you surround yourself with low caliber people?  Do you only follow and never lead?  Do you demand to take credit for everything, swallowing up all the opportunities for those you work with to grow and possibly surpass you?

I can’t think of a more fulfilling legacy in sports that to not only be a champion at the highest level, but to be the progenitor of generations of champions.  I think the same is true outside of sports.  It’s a kind of immortality.

You don’t need to live vicariously or obsess over the success or failure of those in your network.  It’s got to be a loose, spontaneous thing.  But if you’re doing leadership right, you should see other leaders emerge from your circle of influence, and then other leaders emerge from under them.

My Sports Affiliations

Sports fandom is one area where I consciously choose to engage in irrational bias and allow events completely out of my control and irrelevant to my daily life affect my mood.  It’s part of the game and what makes sports fun.  If you felt no joy or anger the game would lose its value.  The ability to be transported by immersion in the sport is the beauty of it.

I occasionally get weird looks when I root for various teams or players because not all of my teams are based on geography or something simple to identify.

I’m from Michigan, so the fact that all the major pro sports teams from Michigan are my favorites makes sense.  I love the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, and when I occasionally pay attention to hockey, the Red Wings.  But I’m a fan of several other teams too.

As for college, I’m a Michigan State guy.  Best basketball and football programs in the state (Yep.  I said it.), and one of the best in the nation.  I don’t care about the institution, but I love their sports.  Dantonio and Izzo are amazing and embody the attitude proper to great sports in the Great Lakes state.  I didn’t go to MSU, but if you grow up in Michigan you will be a fan of U of M or MSU.  I chose correctly as a boy.  My brother likes U of M.  Go figure.

I love the Chicago Cubs.  I grew up equidistant from Detroit and Chicago and spent far more time in the latter.  I went to Wrigley several times in my baseball loving childhood and Ryne Sandberg was my favorite player.  The Cubs are almost as much of a home team to me as the Tigers.

I love the Pittsburgh Steelers.  This one doesn’t have much reason.  Since I was a kid I just kind of liked them.  I loved Bill Cower and I thought maybe when he left I wouldn’t care as much.  Nope.  Still love them.  There’s something about the franchise that is just right.  They’re what I imagine the Lions could be if they were good….in other words, if everything about every bit of the Lions history and culture were completely different than it is.

I love the New England Patriots.  Check that.  I love Bill Belichick.  If he left, I wouldn’t care about the Pats.  Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of pro sports by a mile.  What he’s done in this age or parity is three times better than the next best coach.  Every year – even every week – they are a new team, built specifically to win that game.  And it works.  Everything that’s not supposed to work in the NFL Bill makes work.  It’s unreal.  The more others hate him, the more I love him.

I loved the 1990’s Chicago Bulls.  Because I love Michael Jordan.  Greatest athlete in the history of pro sports.  Those Bulls teams were amazing, and their reign coincided with when I became interested in basketball more than baseball, plus the Pistons were on the decline so the Bulls were a natural team for me to love.  I don’t care much about the Bulls either way now, but those old teams were the best.

I love the current Golden State Warriors.  Certainly because of Steph Curry, who is the greatest present day player and the only one since Jordan who is truly changing everything about the game of basketball.  But it’s not just that.  Draymond Green has an explosive play style built on grit and the attitude to match.  He’s from MSU.  Of course he does.  It’s definitely not the franchise I love, but the current mix of personnel.  This team has a legit shot to come close to the ’90’s Bulls team.  Take in greatness when you can.

That’s about it for teams I love.  I like some individual players a lot too.  Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, and Drew Brees come to mind.

As any good sports fan, I’m also often motivated by irrational hatred.  Of course I hate my team’s traditional rivals.  The Michigan Wolverines, the Bears and Packers (but especially the Bears), etc.  But I also hate some other teams for various reasons and sometimes no reason at all.  I hate the St. Louis Cardinals.  I hate Pretty much all New York teams except the Yankees.  I hate the Boston Red Sox.  I hate the Dallas Cowboys.

There you have the lay of the land in my world of sports fandom.  Now we can irrationally pretend to like or dislike each other during big games.  Just remember, all of my teams are better than all of yours.

A Few Insights on Institutions and Sports

One of the reasons I love sports is the opportunity they provide to see how formal and informal institutions and norms interact to create outcomes, often surprising.  When athletics and economic thinking intersect, I’m a happy man.

An excellent article on Grantland by Brian Phillips got me thinking again about the incentives in college basketball.  Small changes in formal rules and small changes in the informal enforcement of those rules can lead to pretty big consequences.  In the case of college basketball it’s resulted in a far more painful viewing experience.  Watch some of the tournament games this year and you’ll see what I mean.  Basketball is a game of runs and big emotional momentum swings over a series of plays.  Yet instead of fast paced scoring streaks I’ve mostly witnessed a baseball-like process of a play or two followed by long pauses for TV or coaches timeouts or free-throws, followed by another play or two.

There are several possible changes that could improve the experience.  Economists Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton in their phenomenal book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers discuss the origin of the shot clock.  The game was in a similar place.  The best teams were known to get a small lead and then pass the ball for several minutes at a time to run out the clock.  A sensible strategy but a horrible spectator sport.  The introduction of the shot clock dramatically improved the experience.

The shot clock is an example of a new formal rule.  Mike Munger and Russ Roberts talk about not just formal but informal rules and norms in sports in one of my favorite EconTalk episodes.  We tend to assume the order around us, in the world as in sports, is the result of formal rules and enforcement, but more often there is a far more powerful substrate of informal norms and expectations with their own unique enforcement mechanisms.  Fights in hockey, or fake fights in baseball are great examples, as is the social approbation faced by teams who run up the score at the end of an inevitable victory in football, or those who continue to foul the opposing team when trailing by double-digits in the waning seconds of a basketball game.

What I like about the Grantland article is that it touches on formal and informal institutions in its analysis of what’s happening to college basketball.  It’s not only the number of timeouts allowed and the defensive rules (formal), it’s also the way refs choose to call fouls and coaches choose to reign in improvisation by players (informal).  The article went further than this.  It had some profound insight into something even more fundamental than formal and informal institutions.  It touched on the beliefs of fans, players, coaches, officials, and everyone involved.  It’s not only the rules written on paper, or the unwritten rules in our heads that create these outcomes.  The beliefs we have about the game and the rules create the context within which all these institutions must operate.  Beliefs are the ultimate binding constraint on what kind of institutions can exist.

In the case of college basketball, Phillips argues that we all know deep down it’s a professional affair the goal of which is entertainment, yet none of us wants to admit this to ourselves or publicly.  We wrap it in the cloak of character building, preparation for life, team-work, and a lot of old-timey notions about young men getting exercise for their bodies to compliment the mental exercise of a college education.  It’s not that sports don’t do these things or offer no life lessons.  Far from it.  It’s that the primary goal of sports is to make money like any other enterprise, and in our society the great lie we all pretend to believe is that self-interest is inferior to altruism as a motive (even though the beneficial outcomes of self-interested behavior far exceed all the altruism in human history).  We have to keep up the fiction that college athletics is not primarily a moneymaking entertainment enterprise.

Lots to think about on this topic, but I think the insights about the role of our beliefs (and the contradictory nature of our stated vs. revealed preferences) in shaping institutions which shape incentives which result in outcomes is powerful.  For the future of sports and society as a whole.

Some Lies I Believe

I think Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame Induction speech where he calls out everyone he thinks disrespected him is one of the greatest ever.  I find Alec Balwdin’s “Always be closing” monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross incredibly inspirational.  I loved when Kevin Durant said, “It’s my fault” after playing an amazing playoff game while his teammates let him down.

Strictly speaking, all of these are lies.  Jordan’s high school coach didn’t disrespect him.  He saw an undeveloped talent and made a reasonable decision with no malice.  All the employees Baldwin yelled at were not losers who shouldn’t even think about drinking coffee until they can close a deal.  Durant was not to blame for the loss.

Jordan chose to interpret everything as a sleight.  He used it as a chip on his shoulder.  Probably not a very psychologically healthy move in normal life.  Baldwin’s speech is a terrible way to manage people in the workplace.  Durant’s claim that he was to blame reveals a God complex that is a pretty dangerous outlook.  Yet I love each of these instances.

Only once you know no one is out to get you can you benefit from pretending they are.  Humans adopt beliefs and take actions based on story.  We need narrative.  Sometimes, especially if you’ve achieved some modicum of success, life simply does not present much conflict or direct opposition.  Yet we are moved by stories of heroes and villains.  This is when the truly great ones fabricate a narrative that powers them to achieve.

I sometimes joke with my wife that I want her to pretend to leave me for a few days so I can feel enough angst to write music.  As a teen I wrote songs constantly, fueled by high emotions.  A stable, secure marriage is a real challenge to musical creativity!

When life doesn’t provide them I tell myself stories of struggle.  I create myths wherein villains and haters are obstructing my way or mocking my effort.  I don’t actually make enemies with real people, but I weave a narrative that produces a chip on the shoulder.  I enter into a game where no one really believes in me and metaphorical bullets fly from every side.

A belief that the universe is trying to destroy you is incredibly disempowering.  But once you know it’s not true yet selectively choose to play as if it is you become unstoppable.  You can’t be unstoppable if nothing is trying to stop you.

Put that coffee down.

The Trade-Off Between Productivity and Adaptability

When I got to the office this morning the WiFi was down.  It put a wrench in my whole day.  I had planned to write a blog post then jump right in to my task list.  Today was one of those productive days.  I could feel it.  But with no WiFi I couldn’t start in my preferred order.  I could do emails and several other things on my phone, but it’s much harder to write a blog post that way, so that had to wait.  I am now off my game, and struggling to get back on.

Some days I’m pretty adaptable.  If I know things are going to be unpredictable, I enter a flexible state of mind and can handle it well (when travelling, for instance).  But even though I handle it well, I’m far less productive when I’m highly adaptive.  I get back from a trip and I have a lot of catching up to do.  I have yet to find that zone where I can be highly productive and still easily roll with unexpected schedule shifts or curve-balls.

This apparent trade-off got me thinking about great sports teams.  Some of the greatest regular season teams are highly productive.  They have a plan, they are excellent at execution, and they deliver results week in, week out.  But many of those teams struggle mightily in the post season.  They face top defenses who have had longer to plan and throw out every trick in the bag.  They can upset the schedule.  Teams who operate far on the productivity side of the continuum suffer from lack of adaptability and can sometimes get blown out just by missing one or two early series.  I’m thinking of football especially.  How many Super Bowl winning teams have been the most consistently productive regular season teams, compared to the more tumultuous, creative, adaptive, and even streaky “big moment” teams?  Outside of Manning’s Colts, not many in my lifetime.

Where does this leave me?  I don’t really know.  I suspect the sweet spot is to find a way to dial in to productive mode for the regular season – the daily grind when travel and tumult are not the norm – and flip the switch to adaptive mode during the post season – the busy times and big moments where a lot is in the air.  I’m not sure how well one person or team can embody both styles of play and change between them on call.  I’ll have to think of some examples.  Still, I suspect that is where consistent greatness comes.  The kind that can win day in, day out, playing to strengths and rising to the big game with whatever’s needed.

Fantasy Football and Economics

An article from last month’s edition of The Freeman in which I discuss some economic lessons from fantasy football and at the same time grind an ax with a former fantasy football commissioner. Maybe it’s wrong to use economic principles and a great outlet like The Freeman as a way to vent frustration, but it worked and I am now over it…mostly.

The article is here.