Almost everyone is familiar with the Tom Brady story. Growing up in San Mateo, California, Brady was a lightly-recruited quarterback who didn’t show up on any major scouting publications. Even after a successful senior season at the University of Michigan, almost nobody thought he would make the NFL. Brady himself had a resume ready for the job market. Of course, the rest is history. Brady’s NFL career stands alone. He is universally regarded as the greatest quarterback that ever played the game. Much has been written about Brady’s ability to overcome his modest physical talents, but I believe Brady accomplished so much not despite his physical limitations, but rather, because of them. Tom Brady was forced to use his mind to gain an advantage over his competitors and in the process reinvented the game of football, something he would not have had to do if he was born with the talent of a John Elway or Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback he had to beat out on the New England Patriots.
It begs the question: what does it take to think like a superstar? In business, we are taught to think bigger. I always thought “thinking big” was a nice platitude, good for selling seminars and books, but not much more. I agree, thinking bigger is where it starts, but obviously, it takes a lot more than that to be successful on a large scale. Some of you know that I played college basketball for Gregg Popovich, the Hall of Fame coach of the San Antonio Spurs. People love to ask me what he was like. The truth is, I don’t remember much about his coaching, except I do remember that even though we were a division 3 team and on a good night had 500 fans in the stands, to Coach Popovich, we were Duke. He had us play like we were playing in the Final Four every weekend. Like Brady, Coach Pop was able to visualize himself on a world-class stage even when the rest of the world did not. So, how did he make the leap and how can Brady and Popovich’s extraordinary success be applied to business?
First, I think everyone understands that there is no replacing hard work. Things are not going to just happen because you want them to – you have to put in the work. However, I would go a little deeper. I also think you have to master something. If you want to play on a world-class stage, you need to be an expert at something. Popovich was the first NBA coach to build a championship team with predominately foreign-born players. Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginóbili (Argentina), and Tim Duncan (Caribbean) were all born outside the United States. Prior to Popovich, foreign players were a small part of the league, primarily viewed as skilled, but not athletic enough for the NBA. I don’t know the full back story, but Popovich spent a great deal of time evaluating foreign players and used that expertise to win five world championships in fifteen years. When Popovich was the head coach at Pomona Pitzer and married with two kids, he took one season off to be an unpaid assistant for Larry Brown when Brown was the head coach at Kansas. Popovich was an intense student of the game and willing to make big sacrifices to improve his knowledge and skills. Popovich mastered his craft, and in the process discovered a new reservoir of talent that others missed. Thinking big, in my view is not just a state of mind, but a disciplined commitment to deep work and finding the one idea or skill-set that sets you apart from the crowd.
In business, there is a language that elite business people use. You need to learn it. This may seem a bit superficial, but I have come to believe this is true. There is a cadence and communication style that just fits in with elite business circles. It’s not fake or contrived, it is polished and genuine. I bring it up because I think most people miss this. I’m not sure if Popovich or Brady utilized this, but if you read their stories, you’d know that personal relationships played a huge role in both of their journeys to the top. Rather than telling you how to speak to elite business people, I suggest you listen to a few on some podcasts. “Masters of Scale” and “How I Built This” are two good ones. I believe the credo that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you want to spend more time with elite business people, you need to spend some time learning how they think and speak.
Like Brady, your perceived weaknesses can turn out to be your superpower, and while thinking big is a great start, managing relationships and being the best at something are the requisite elements to world-class achievement.
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