Don Akers's Blog
Turning Talent Into Performance

Going For It, Smart!

Going for it on fourth down in the red zone. Calling an onside kick at the start of the second half. Blitzing to put pressure on the quarterback when they keep driving down the field.

Sean Payton, coach of the New Orleans Saints made some gutsy calls in Super Bowl XLIV and since the Saints won, he made the “right” calls.

Were they smart calls? What if New Orleans had lost?

Do you remember Jonny Moseley? The US skier won the Olympic moguls competition in 1998. He finished fourth in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City because he performed a “Dinner Roll,” a radical double flat rotation trick that was considered questionable by the judges since inverted flips were not allowed.

Moseley’s Dinner Roll was not inverted but it was the most radical, new, difficult, even hard-to-imagine-how-to-do it trick on the planet at the time. And he nailed it!

Gutsy? Yes. Smart? Well that depends. The judges scored his run, arguably the best of the event, as a fourth place. No medal. Not a big deal to him as a competitor since he’d won Olympic gold in 1998.

He knew in his heart of hearts that he was the best. Jonny Moseley lifted his sport by being willing to push the envelope in front of the world–even when it meant losing the endorsement cash that comes with winning the Olympics.

Moseley asks, “Was I bummed? Sure.” He shrugs. “I knew the judges weren’t going to get it, but I had to do it anyway. I wasn’t going to look back at the Olympics and know that I played it safe. I needed to be progressive, to take it to the next level, for me. I already had a gold, after all.”

Now, according to Moseley’s blog, Shaun White is facing the same tough call. He is the baddest freestyle snowboarder on the planet–and he’s talking about throwing some tricks in the Olympics that have not been done in competition. Why would that be a problem? With sports that develop very quickly, the judges can’t stay current. It’s nearly impossible to judge a sport that is so technical unless you can do, or at least try to do, the same tricks.

The judges might not be savvy enough to appreciate how hard a trick is, particularly when the performer makes it look easy. So what to do? Play it safe and go with tricks they know and have a more predictable chance to win? Go for the gusto and throw the baddest trick you can find and hope someone remembers later when you need a J-O-B? Ride for the glory of the sport or win the gold safely and then ride for the glory of the sport in the events that “appreciate” you putting the free in freestyle?

At the end of the day we each have to decide. Are we going to play it safe or are we going to go for it? Never make the mistake that guts and smarts are at odds. If you saw the way Shaun White kissed the deck during the X Games practice session, you’d know he’s got guts. If you heard what he said, “I’m glad I got back on the board right away so the crash wouldn’t haunt me at the next event” then you know he’s smart.

And it’s not just about what’s right or wrong. In the end the sustainable decision personally and professionally is to have the guts to do what we deeply believe is the “right” thing whether it’s immediately recognized by others or not.

We learn more by doing what we are personally committed to, what we believe is best, right or wrong. My friend (and sustainable custom home builder), Chris Fry, says, “Sometimes you have to move forward just to know if you’re pointing in the right direction. The faster you go the sooner you know.”

The real risk is not that we won’t make the “best” decision but that we will lose the learning that comes from going for it when making decisions and living with the results. If we let popular opinion change our mind, we can always shrug off the responsibility with “I knew I shouldn’t have done that” (so we’re not as invested in the results–a sure prescription for failure). If we do what we want and we’re wrong, no one will learn more than we do. If we’re willing to be wrong often enough, we can learn anything.

We need to remember that no one knows more about our situation, point of view, capabilities, and potential gain than we do. Further, no one knows how we much we care about our choices or why.

In my current sport of motocross, we see lots of young and talented riders who fly off the jumps. It would be easy to think that they just do it (like the commercials tell us to). When we have significant risk to our health, we don’t just do it. We work up step by step.

First we get comfortable with the small jumps. When we feel confident we go for bigger and bigger air until one day someone says, “Wow you’re really talented.” We get there, one step, then another, developing the technique, muscle memory, and body positioning to land the big jumps.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how top performers develop extraordinary skill and acuity in their craft–bordering on genius. The surprise is that they are not the most talented or the most intelligent. According to Gladwell, the difference between those who are the very best and those who are competent (but not gifted), boils down to better coaching, better training, and the fact they spend ten thousand hours in deliberate practice. It’s this deliberate practice that makes it possible to make a gutsy call and a smart call at the same time.

Deliberate practice, and the understanding and competence that we get from practice, is what gives us the confidence to make a gutsy call the smart call.

New Orleans had practiced onsides kicks hundreds of times; they’d practiced going for it on fourth down. They’d practiced blitzing their linebackers. They weren’t just going for it; they were pushing the envelope of possibility by taking more risk in an area where they were highly proficient. And it paid off. They weren’t throwing up their chips and hoping they’d fall in a good place.

Sean Payton showed his chops by being willing to take a chance, an educated chance, and his team pulled it off. He wasn’t rolling the dice–he was making a steely eyed, what’s-best-for-my-team-even-if-it-puts-me-at-risk leadership choice. That’s what Jim Collins called Level Five Leadership in Good to Great. Great leaders do what’s best for the team and leave their egos out of the decision.

Payton’s call could have gone the other way. The Saints could have lost. He would have taken the heat himself for the call, but shared the credit for the results of those calls with his team.

So is it gutsy to try something risky that you’ve never done before? What if you’ve always wanted to and this might be your only chance? No, that’s stupid. Real guts is about stretching the envelope in areas where stretching is in the natural order of things.

When anyone thinks they are “going big” the first time they ride a full race motocross bike you can call the ambulance–because they’re going down hard.

Operating outside our ability and hoping for good luck is stupid. Pushing the envelope of our experience and skill to improve ourselves and our professions, that’s smart–even if we fail to get what we want–because we learn faster when we move faster.

Shaun White previewed some of his tricks in New Zealand, but he could still lose Olympic gold if he goes for it and wows the crowd so big that the judges can‘t comprehend what he’s done and punish him with mediocre scores. Or he could go for it and blow one of the big tricks and still lose.

Will people question him, his contribution to the sport, if he plays it safe and gives the judges the tricks they expect? Probably not, but he will. None of us get to the top of our profession without a commitment to excellence.

Why not make “going for it, smart” a habit? “Going for it, smart” inspires our hearts with possibility and feeds our minds with real-time information about how things could work out in our favor. It’s part of our learning. More importantly, going for it, when it makes sense, puts the sparkle in living.

Should you go for it, or play it safe? What if you had a way to decide, for those times when you’re not completely convinced either way?

Here’s how to know for sure…

Answer these questions:
1. Are the odds acceptable (long odds are sometime better than no odds)?
2. What is the risk if I fail completely?
3. What if I make the safe call and fail?
4. What will I learn, either way?
5. Is this about me being right, or doing the right thing?
6. How will I feel tomorrow if I succeed? If I fail?
7. What about next year?
8. In fifty years?
9. Now, imagine you are fifty years older–looking back over a long and satisfying life. Remember now what it was like to make this decision. After fifty years, what advice would you give to someone like you who had this same decision to make?

So, should YOU go for it? Don’t ask me. You already know. What’s stopping you?


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