He tossed a ball over his shoulder and into the basket while he was talking and looking me in the eye. I retrieved the ball and handed it back to him. “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”
I can distinctly remember when I read that paragraph. As readers of Michael Marcon Tweets already know, I idolized Bill Bradley when I was growing up. I grabbed my basketball (always beside me in those days), rushed outside, and placed myself under my basketball hoop with my back to the basket. Then, unlike every Hallmark commercial you have ever seen, I missed five in a row.
In my case, I had no idea where I was!
A couple of years later, during my junior year at Bergen Catholic HS, I was unable to play due to an ankle injury. I spent practices on one of the side court baskets hobbling on one foot. I was making some extra money playing H-O-R-S-E against some of the freshmen. My knockout shot? I stood under the basket with my back to the hoop – on one foot – and flipped shot after shot (right handed and left handed) over my shoulder into the hoop. I had developed a sense of where I was. You see, the key word in Bradley’s quote is develop. It does not happen overnight. You have to develop a sense of where you are.
The challenge to young professionals – and to driven, “Type A”, older professionals – is to resist the popular culture’s need for instant results. As I have stated before, every successful professional – in EVERY profession – got there because they outworked the competition. Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something? He could have renamed his book A Sense of Where You Are.
Early in my career my initial focus was on sales. My job was to generate revenue, and in the beginning, I was not very good at it. I remember being halfway through a sales pitch when the prospect interrupted me and said, “Your service is very compelling. We will use your firm on our next deal.” Unfazed – and clueless – I nodded and continued with my sales pitch. After a few minutes, the prospect interrupted me again.
“Let me give you some advice,” he said. “When a prospect gives you an order, stop talking!”
I never forgot that. Several years later, I spend a significant amount of time working with our young sales professionals. They will watch and listen as I make presentations to potential clients. After we’re done, they will inevitably comment on my command of the sales process, the ease with which I manage the interpersonal interactions, and how I do not get flustered by tough questions. My standard reply? “Yup, it’s almost like I’ve done it before!” After more than 10,000 hours of delivering these pitches, I had developed a sense of where I was.
Sixteen years ago, I left my sales role to focus on building Equity Risk Partners. Looking back, I am very confident that I initially set several business world records… for what not to do.
Creating a brand? Nope.
Attracting, training, and developing people? Nope.
Building an engine for organic growth? Nope.
Managing financial statements? Nope.
I did, however, get up early every morning, work late every night, and seek advice from mentors, advisors, friends, and competitors. I learned from every mistake and challengeed myself to do better. 31,200 hours later (40 hours / week * 52 weeks * 15 years…and, yes, the 40 hours / week is a joke), we had built a business that was among the most respected in our industry, with professionals that were the most sought after, and financial results that allowed us to generate a wonderful return on our investment. I had developed a sense of where I was.
None of us were around to watch the first time Tom Brady felt the pocket collapse and he panicked and threw an interception; or the first time Phil Mickelson tried to hit a flop shot and skulled it out of bounds; or the first time Roger Federer tried to hit a running cross court backhand and whiffed; or the first time Meryl Streep tried to improvise a role with a different accent and sounded like she swallowed helium. No, we only see them now, after the 10,000 hours – after they developed a sense of where they are.
Put in the work. Stay the course. Don’t give up. One day, magically and joyfully, it will just hit you – I have developed a sense of where I am.
Last summer, the floor of the Princeton gym was being resurfaced, so Bradley had to put in several practice sessions at the Lawrenceville School. His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looking discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eighths inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low.
Michael C. Marcon is the founder & CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.