The Worst Best Team in Sussex County and Other Stories

I had a conversation with a friend, colleague, and coach a few days ago, and it caused me to dig up a speech I gave a decade ago to a group of Sussex County (New Jersey) high school students. I’m posting it today because (a) I couldn’t find it in the RW archives, (b) it holds up as an homage to a few things I still care about, and (c) it captures some wisdom from the best coach I ever had. Interestingly, I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because he recently moved out of New Jersey and a few tributes came through my email from his friends and neighbors. The world seems best when it’s enlivened by warm connections. Blogs, too.


I want to begin by congratulating all the Scholar Athletes here tonight.  It’s rare to be recognized for excellence in one category . . . and even more rare to be recognized for both your athleticism and your accomplishments in the classroom.

And so it is first and foremost humbling to address you and even more to try to fulfill my charge, which is to leave you with something of value.  But I will try. 

I graduated from Pope John High School in 1994, and I was fortunate enough to be a Scholar Athlete, too.  I think the standards must have been lower back then.  My father tells me that when I attended this same dinner, I actually fell asleep during the speaker’s remarks . . . so I’ll understand if some of you nod off.  What comes around goes around.

I make my living in a few ways.  I’m an administrator at the Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey, and I write books and magazine articles.  These activities, especially the latter, have allowed me to travel and meet interesting people and build a small audience of “fans” who follow the work that I do. 

But none of these things qualify me to speak to you today. 

What qualifies me, I think, is a respect and reverence for the time of life that you are on the verge of completing.  I’m a firm believer that high school is not just a pathway to college.  It’s not a means to an end.  It’s a process that can give you much of what you need to build a successful life. 

Sure, you will need to pick up certain skills to be a surgeon or a lawyer, but high school can give you the intangibles – it can teach you about how to treat people and how not to treat people; it can teach you about how to pursue your dreams with honesty and integrity.  It can help you establish, in other words, firm foundations for your character and your ethics. 

I’m not implying that you have to go out and learn these things tomorrow.  The fact is, you have already had the experiences.  Maybe in your freshmen year.  Maybe last week.  You just have to go back to them, dust them off, pull out the lessons, and return to them as needed. 

For me, two moments in high school stand out as particularly instructive.  They guide me almost daily, since they relate to teamwork, on the one hand, and individual performance, on the other. 

Since basketball was pretty much my life in high school, these are both basketball stories.  I’m going to tell them to you today not only to share the lessons, but also to model for you the process of learning from your past and particularly of learning from your high school experiences.

The first story is called “The Worst Best Team in Sussex County.” 

When I was a sophomore, I was lucky enough to be called up the Varsity team – or so I thought.  The team was filled with great seniors.  They could shoot the lights out and play great defense.  They were physically tough and aggressive.  A few of them were even college prospects.  I was excited to lace up my shoes next to them.  But the shine only lasted a few days, a few practices.  I quickly realized there was something wrong with the team.  I was young, so I couldn’t put my finger on it.  But something just didn’t feel right in the locker room or on the bus.  Something just didn’t feel right on the court.  We were losing games we shouldn’t have lost, and barely winning games we should have won by double digits. 

I’ll never forget the practice when my coach told us to meet in the film room rather than on the court.  We crowded around the television as my coach played a video he had edited together from various games.  There were two scenes in the video.  In the first one, one of our players fell down. He had taken a pretty hard hit; the ref blew the whistle; the game stopped. Eventually, he pulled himself off the floor and walked to the foul line. 

The second scene was more exciting and more of what we expected to see in a highlight film – one of our players dribbled the ball past a few defenders and dunked it. 

Our coach let us watch each scene a few times, and then he asked us what we noticed.  We described the dunk but said that the rest was pretty boring.  He played both scenes again – and eventually we were silent.  We didn’t notice what he wanted us to notice.  An orchestrated tension mounted. And then coach cut in:

In the first scene, when one of our players fell, no one helped him back to his feet.  Not a single teammate offered him a hand.  In the second scene, when one of our players dunked the ball, a crowing achievement for a high school basketball player from Sussex County, no one on our team gave him a high five or a pat on the back.  No one celebrated with him or because of him. He looked around, expectantly, and then ran back down the court. 

“These two scenes tell the whole story of our season,” coach said.  “They demonstrate exactly why we aren’t winning more games and exactly why we haven’t yet lived up to our potential.” 

He was right.  And he’s still right.

You can be the greatest athlete on the court or the smartest person in your company . . . but if you can’t make your team work with you, if you can’t build a great team around you, you will never go as far as you should.  You can’t win a team game alone, and most of what you will do in your lives, outside the classroom, is a team game.  When you’re asked to collaborate on a group project in college . . .  when you’re part of a study group in law school . . . when you organize an event for charity . . . when you start a family. . . All of these are team games.  And if you don’t help your teammates off the ground when they stumble or pat them on the back when they soar, your teams will underachieve.  You will underachieve.

The second story is called “The Worst Best Pass of My Life.”  This one involves the same coach in a different season.  It was my senior season this time, and my team was having a good year – a much better year, in fact, than we should have been having.  With only a few seniors on the team, and only one senior with any true experience, we were exceeding all expectations, winning games we shouldn’t have been winning, and blowing out teams we should have only beat by a few points.  I was certainly a little bit arrogant by the mid-point of the season. 

In one game, a game we were easily winning, I caught a long rebound near the left side of the court.  I looked down the court and saw one of my teammates streaking toward the basket.  I reached back like a quarterback and launched a “hail mary” style pass – he caught it and laid it in while getting fouled. The crowd went wild — so wild, in fact, that I didn’t hear my teammate calling my name when he came in to replace me.  My coach had pulled me out of the game right after the pass, and he left me at the end of the bench for the rest of the game.

I was outraged and humiliated, and I sulked until I had the chance to confront him the next day. 

“Why’d you bench me, coach?” I asked him. 

His answer was precise: “When you throw a pass like that, everyone in the gym can tell exactly where the ball is going.  That pass only worked because the team we were playing wasn’t very good.  If you throw that pass against a great team, they’re going to steal it.  And if you throw that pass at the wrong time in the game against a great team, we’re going to lose.  It’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.  It’s your job, as my team captain, to understand.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that my coach, Tom Fox, won hundreds of games and ended his career as a local legend.  At that moment, he was teaching me about the way the smallest details contribute to our success and our failure.  To have enduring greatness, to win seasons instead of just games, to have a great career, you have to practice perfectly.  You have to practice the way you hope to play – whether you’re playing the game of basketball or the game of life. 

You’ll notice a trend in each of these stories.  They are all about failures.  A failing team, a moment when a coach benched a player: if you had asked me when I was your age if I would talk about these moments in public when I was my age, I would have laughed in your face.  Not a chance.

It’s difficult to try to learn from failure while it’s happening . . . it’s much easier to try to learn from a day like today, where someone else is telling you that you’ve made it – where the stars seem to be aligned and the applause is tied directly to your actions and efforts.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening . . . you deserve it.  Being named your school’s “Scholar Athlete” is pretty great. I hope you enjoy the rest of the things that go well in your high school careers and beyond.  But don’t forget about the things that don’t go well or that didn’t go well.  Don’t bury these experiences.  They just might contain lessons that will last, lessons you can return to as you shape a meaningful, productive, and happy life.  Lessons you might share one day in a speech wherein you’re actually trying to pass on something of value.

Savoring an Interview with Katia Verresen

If you’re joining RW this week, I’m going to try to keep us focused on a recent Charter interview with Executive Coach Katia Verresen. It resonated with me — as it likely will with some of you — because of the way Verresen so clearly seeks to support creative and meaningful work. I want to savor the interview, and I suggest you do the same.

To facilitate that process, I’m going to leave some focused notes below. (All quoted material comes from Verresen.) Give these suggestions a try or at least carry them around with you and hold them up against your day-to-day reality. You can then read the whole interview over the weekend*.

  • For meeting schedulers: Consider starting every meeting 5 minutes after the hour. In tandem, encourage attendees to use those 5 minutes to disengage from prior tasks and to take a few breaths before your meeting. This scheduling move seems important to me not only because it might slow down the pace of the day, but also because it could improve meetings by giving people a rhythm around preparing for them. I’m not simply talking about “reading the agenda” or the memo in advance; I’m talking about preparing one’s mind and body for the tasks, and team, ahead.
  • If people go back-to-back, from meeting to meeting to commitment to engagement, “cognitive drag lasts about 23 minutes.” Not good. See the previous bullet point.
  • How to use an hour (when you’re not in a meeting): “When we’re doing deep thinking work, 52 minutes is very good for us. More than that and we start to flag.” So that’s 50 – 55 minutes on-task, followed by a break. I’ve been saying this same thing for 30 years because a teacher I had in 8th grade once told us to do our homework that way. “Work for 50 minutes,” she said, “then do whatever the heck you want for 10 minutes. Then, make sure you stop your break at 10 minutes and get back to work.” For some reason I believed her, and I used my trusty Casio watch to time my splits. To this day, when I’m really in a groove, I naturally break up my hours this way.
  • Move before solving: “After we workout, we have greater focus and clarity for up to two hours.” This principle is worth considering, especially if the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t urgent or you aren’t up against a deadline. As I said at the start, the goal in savoring this particular article is to hold ideas — like “after we workout” — up to reality, especially if you’re feeling lackluster about your current processes or outcomes or both. What’s the worst that could happen? And the best?
  • On pausing, if just for 10 seconds: “We have to remember that we are biological humans and there are very simple things like moving our neck, looking around, and locating ourselves in the day that suit our social nervous system. It registers safety. It takes less than 10 seconds.”
  • On celebrating even the small wins: “When [high performers] reach their goals, they move on and completely dismiss what they’ve created. That’s disrespectful of their work and their team. It’s really important to pause, reflect, and celebrate that we went from zero to one with a journey in between so that we can capture the wisdom, the learnings, and the richness of the experience. That way, it’s easier to create and go after our next challenge.”

*Of course you can just skip my notes and read the whole interview whenever you want. But my point in designing this post in the way that I did is to work with people’s habits. If you show up here every day looking for something new, you’re going to find the same thing for a few days this week. The only way to make it new is to make yourself new.

Source: Charter

Activation Energy

I learned about the term “activation energy” in the Farnham Street newsletter. It’s one of those terms that I recognized instantly when I saw it because I have frequently seen it in the wild — as either a part of a successful planning process or, more likely, something unexpected or for which a group was underprepared. “That’s what it’s called,” I said.

Activation Energy (AE), as I understand it, is the effort and work and time and muscle and hustle — energy! — it takes to set in motion something substantial. It’s drives the launch of an endeavor, project, community, initiative, etcetera.

Ideally, if you handle the AE part of your planning well, you can reduce your energy investment afterwards. Some momentum will live on in the system.

Also if you plan your AE well, you’ll have a chance of recovering after knowingly throwing yourself, your team, and your systems out of balance.

Planning, let’s say, the first few weeks of a school year or the beginning of a specific project that will ask a team to juggle ordinary work and extra-ordinary work is helpful — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You can prepare mentally for it. You can frame communication around it. You can work it into your leadership storytelling — i.e., AE is tough, but it has a beginning and an end; here’s an example of where I’ve seen this done well; here’s how it may feel. You can explain to your family or friends that you may have to put in a few long days or even a weekend, that you may be less available to them, that you may be tired or even frustrated.

I’m saying all of this because expending AE should be a choice, is something you can manage, and shouldn’t be something that sneaks up on you, or worse, a team for which you’re responsible.

The Offense / Defense Lens

I once asked Reshan if he preferred offense or defense. The question was random, a bit of a joke even, and I half expected him not to answer. But he said, with absolute certainty, “defense.”

While having a conversation with a parent of a player on my son’s soccer team, I was reminded of Reshan’s answer . . . and perhaps the reason for his certainty.

“On defense, you want to close space, shrink the field,” the parent said. “On offense, you want to open up space, open up the field.” He was telling me this as part of an analogy he was making about a team he was leading, or trying to lead, at his job.

And now I’m thinking ahead to the coming week, when I’ll be facilitating — I just counted — 9 hours of planned meetings. Heading into a planned meeting, I always try to think clearly and deliberately about agendas. To build them, I focus on the tasks we need to complete and any group maintenance that needs attention. And this week, I’m going to add an offense / defense lens to my planning. More specifically, I’m going to think about whether or not I need to consolidate space or open it up. Do we need to be really close and really aligned, perhaps to hold a lead, or do we need to spread out and run to space, perhaps to put some points on the board?

In-Person Time

Executive Coach Ed Batista launches his most recent newsletter with a lovely meditation about life on his farm. As is his gift, he spins that experience into fodder for his professional practice, nailing down a key choice point for practitioners in a wide range of fields.

In our own various ways, my clients and I are “re-grounding” ourselves, finding ways to live and work sustainably under new conditions. Sometimes this involves adapting to a radically different environment, as in our case on the farm. More typically it involves distinguishing between A) those pre-pandemic activities that are meaningful and important and should be restored, and B) all the others that were merely by-products of a world in which in-person time was a commodity, and not a precious resource.

For me, things feel busier than ever for October and yet I’m still feeling energized. But that’s in part because I’ve tried to fill my days with as many meaningful, move-the-dial kinds of activities as possible. I’m busier in large part because I’m engaged, interested, and drawn to my work. Or, in Batista’s useful framing, I’m feeling restored because I’ve returned to tasks that “should be restored,” not “merely by-products” of a world of work that was headed in the wrong direction long before the pandemic.

Source: Ed Batista’s October 2021 Newsletter.

The Soup Theory of Idea Generation

Yesterday morning, on the ride in to school, my son asked me why I sometimes send him emails about a certain aspect of machine learning. “All my free time goes to my math homework or soccer,” he said. “Why do you think I have time to work on some random machine learning problem?” He also may have called me weird.

I told him that I had no interest in taking up his free time; instead, I was inviting him to make soup with me.

My daughter, who was tuning the radio at the time, chimed in. “Soup or soup.” (Yes, she has a certain tilt to her voice when she she’s speaking in italics.)

Soup,” I said.

“What’s with all the metaphors?” she asked.

“All the metaphors? That’s a longer conversation. This metaphor is important,” I said, “because it connects to one of the greatest things in the world: the generation of new ideas.”

They were both glad when the ride was over before I could say more . . . and one of them may have even remarked (politely, of course), “why don’t you just write a blog post about it!” I think I will.

Here’s the soup theory of idea generation for anyone who wants to continue the ride:

I believe, based on long practice, that it is helpful to think about a topic or idea as a big pot of soup. (This is assuming you don’t need to move quickly.)

When you’re just setting out to make soup, there’s likely some intense heat involved. In terms of an idea, the “tenor” of our metaphor, we might think about this as the initial trip down the rabbit hole or the emotional experience that puts an idea onto your radar in the first place. In terms of cooking soup, the “vehicle” of our metaphor, it’s more literal: you bring the initial stock to a boil.

Once the soup / idea reaches a boil / flashpoint, you move it onto the back burner / file.

You turn the heat down. You let it bubble and gurgle ever so slightly. You expose it, in other words, to time and the lowest possible amount of warmth to keep it cooking. The slower and lower the better, in fact, and you can always turn off the stove completely and just put a lid on the pot.

And now I hear my son’s voice, if I had been explaining this concept to him: “Why the heck do you have to keep sending me emails if the soup is already cooking?”

You have to think of the emails as new ingredients — things you stumble upon while looking around in the kitchen, while maybe doing something else, while maybe traveling somewhere, all while the soup cooks. Once you understand the base, and know it’s cooking, you enter the world a bit differently. Ingredients you meet along the way remind you of the soup, and that it’s cooking. You wonder what would happen if you added those ingredients to the soup. You bring them home and approach the pot. You give the soup a stir, taste it to determine how much of the new ingredients are worth adding. Or, if you’re in a rush, you just toss in the whole bundle. You leave the soup again — and again — and go back to your life. The bundle unfurls and spreads, mixing into the soup.

More life equals more ideas, means more time is passing, means the soup is getting deeper and richer, means more ingredients to add to the soup, means, ultimately, more and more layers and flavors, more blending.

At some point, when you have the time and energy, or when the soup smell is filling up your house so much that you need to do something, you’ll finish the soup. You’ll taste it again. You’ll add some salt, some pepper. You’ll pour it into bowls, select the perfect loaf of bread to go with it, and share it with close friends or colleagues or neighbors or the world. It’s then that you’ll know what the soup is worth, what it might be good for. Or it will just be a nice meal, which is fine, too. Not all soup needs to change the world.

And the point is, you couldn’t have rushed any of that. Not the making; not the serving; not the valuing. It wouldn’t be the same kind of soup — that is, precisely your soup, a soup made of your one, true life — unless it bubbled and gurgled through time and temperature shifts and surprise ingredients and more time.

“So,” I’d be saying to my son right about now if he were listening, “don’t think of them as emails. Think of them as things you might put in a soup . . . a soup we don’t have to serve anytime soon. In fact, the longer we wait, the better the soup. Have a great day at school.”

What Game are You Playing?

A lot of people I know use MailChimp to manage their mailing lists. It’s easy to use and has good tiered subscription options. So, when I heard that the company had been acquired for 12 billion dollars, I read a few of the stories to understand how a seemingly simple company could be worth so much.

Though I’m still not sure about the economics, or what drove them, my research did yield an interesting portrait of one of the company’s founders, Ben Chestnut. I liked in particular how he seemed to know exactly what game he was playing and trying to win each day.

In an article in the Financial Times, he said: “I kind of feel like I had my head down, tweaking things, improving things, and then I looked up and bam, it’s a $12bn company.” Later, he boils it down even more: “I would look at the previous balance, and then I would look at this month’s balance, and I would want to make sure that this month was greater than last month. That’s all I ever did.”

The article also reveals what he (and his partner) didn’t do. Here’s Chestnut reflecting on early investors, which he (and his partner) seemingly swatted away while not taking their money: “It felt like they were more like alien beings from another era trying to tell me how to run my business.”

What the founder and his partner did, what they didn’t do, and last . . . how they know they won: the article focuses finally on an outside voice (Wade Davis of Zapier). Regarding the deal that finally convinced the MailChimp founders to sell, Davis said he was surprised but “there were probably other reasons they felt this was a good outcome for MailChimp, for the customers, and for everyone.”

Most of us will never sell a company for billions of dollars. But all of us can seek to approach our work in ways that draw useful, healthy boundaries around it. The advice is simple:

Know what game you are playing.

Within that scope, define what you do and what you don’t do.

Repeat the doing and the not doing and protect against intrusions that would throw off the patterns, the discipline.

And then, perhaps most important, know how you know you’ve won and that the game is over.

Source: Financial Times (behind paywall).