What I learned last week (#124): court awareness

Learned last week: understanding humans, basketball sense, noticing games, and more!

The process of understanding humans:

I’ve originally heard about Graham Duncan from a Tim Ferriss podcast appearance (which was super) and this article from him immediately caught my eye. His specialty is hiring and What’s going on here, with this human? is all about the different frameworks that can be helpful in understanding people as well as how he approaches the process. Hiring well is pretty important, to say the least:

A lot of people, in my industry and others, see all of this as a drag, a distraction from the central mission of their team. But I’ve come to consider it the most important skill for anyone building teams—and to believe that, to the extent I have any unique skill, this is it. In the work context, managing the complexity around people is the most important skill for anyone building a business. As the gaming company Valve puts it: “Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe.”

As someone who has done a few interviews (very poorly I might add), this was so interesting to read. Here is one example of the goodness within:

I sometimes visualize meeting one person as the equivalent of meeting the Ocean’s 11 crew together at once, wrapped up in one human envelope—we each have distinct parts, and we tell a story to ourselves and the world that they are a coherent whole, but depending on the context different parts step forward into the light on the stage. (To read more on “parts” theory, see Internal Family Systems.)

I now believe that there is no such thing as an A player in the abstract, across all time, in whatever ecosystem they end up in. The former head of recruiting at Bridgewater, Jeff Hunter, has a great essay in which he points out that former head of Apple stores Ron Johnson was an “A player” by any definition in Steve World (he was on the short list to succeed Jobs), but became a “C player” after Bill Ackman and his partners made Johnson head of JCPenney (where he was summarily fired after a poor performance).

Also, I love this quote:

Jerry Seinfeld once said, when asked how he felt about aging, “I think if you’re a little lucky in life you should enjoy getting older…when you’re young you can’t see what’s going on so well.  You get older, you walk into a room and you see who people are faster.”

I highly recommend reading What’s going on here, with this human? on grahamduncan.blog for a fascinating look at high-level hiring.


The difference between being good and talented:

I came across a common thread of ideas last week around focus, habits, and talent (some of my favorite topics). I’ve written before about how talent isn’t given, it’s made, which can be summed up neatly in this little thought at the bottom of a recent fs.blog newsletter:

What seems like a difference in talent often comes down to a difference in focus. Focus turns good performers into great performers. Two keys to focus are saying no to distractions and working on the same problem for an uncommonly long time. Both are simple but not easy.

What does this look like in practice (get it)? There are no shortage of examples and one came across my desk this week. The story of basketball phenom Bill Bradley’s senior year at Princeton, from my favorite non-fiction author John McPhee, provides an example of someone who spent an uncommonly long time on something to develop a talent. It is also an example of great writing in general. There is a lot to enjoy in the article, but the “basketball sense” that comes with spending time practicing is such a cool concept that can apply to any other field as well (yes, even yours!).

“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.”

When Bradley, working out alone, practices his set shots, hook shots, and jump shots, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location. He applies this standard to every kind of shot, with either hand, from any distance. Many basketball players, including reasonably good ones, could spend five years in a gym and not make ten out of thirteen left-handed hook shots, but that is part of Bradley’s daily routine.

Read A Sense of Where You Are on newyorker.com. It’s so good.

Also, for more McPhee see Opposites Attract and Make your work creative through practice.


Noticing the details takes practice:

Tying together the theme of practice and noticing your environment (i.e. basketball sense) was this story shared in the Art of Noticing newsletter. I can’t wait to play this game with my kids!!!

recent episode of *No Stupid Questions —* a podcast I’ve mentioned previously; it’s essentially about behavioral psychology, and I really like it (…) It’s a thoughtful discussion, and a good overview of the subject. But what stood out to me was an anecdote from co-host Stephen Dubner. He described how his father used to play a game with him called Powers of Observation. One day when Dubner was 7 or 8 years old, they went to a diner, where they took a seat and his father said:

“All right, Stevie, I want you to just sit and look around you and really take everything in. Just pay attention. Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.”

After five minutes, he told Dubner to close his eyes, and started asking questions: “What did the lady sitting right behind us order?” And so on.

“He’d grill me on these facts, large and small,” Dubner says. “And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation! But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses — they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying, ever since that day, to flex that muscle. So maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time.”

Dubner goes on to compare this to “court awareness” in basketball — the way a truly great point guard, for example, is tuned in to the movements (speed, angle) of every other player on the court, at all times. (This basic idea is also referred to as situational awarness, a subject I’ll return to in a future TAoN.) He concludes:

“It’s incumbent on all of us to develop some court awareness — have a sense of what’s going on around you.”


A quote that fit us having the first weekend away in over a year:

It’s not the destination that matters. It’s the change of scene.

Brian Eno

Stuff I wrote and drew about this week:


Other things I was reminded of, or thankful for, last week:

  • I spent less time than usual on screens last week (thankfully), and we got away for my daughter’s 8th birthday to the west coast of Scotland. It was our first road trip in well over a year, our first road trip with our dog Rubee, and the first time swimming in the Inner Seas off the West Coast of Scotland for me. It was wholly rejuvenating and much needed.

Last but not least, check out what I’m up to now.

Comments welcome!