Monday Musings (The Score Takes Care of Itself)


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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

Years ago, I met a guy working high up at Microsoft who was introduced to me as “one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.” At one point I asked him: “How has the world changed since you started your career?”

His reply: “In the 1980s, where you were born mattered more than how talented you were. Now, how talented you are matters more than where you’re born. And it’s not just that. Because of the Internet, the smartest young people are now smarter than ever before.

It was four years ago, but I still think about that conversation all the time. Writing on the Internet opens the playing field for ultra-competent young people who've been self-conscious about their interests. That’s how I felt growing up. I was literally flying airplanes in 7th grade, but fear of being mocked meant I didn’t tell my friends about something that was actually a major accomplishment. Nobody thought playing golf was cool in high school, even though I studied under one of the top 50 coaches in America. In retrospect, I can see how extraordinary those experiences were, but at the time I quietly kept my passions to myself.

Things only changed once I started writing online. It’s because of these experiences that I’m launching Write of Passage Liftoff, an online writing program for high schoolers. It's a place where they can learn to love writing, cultivate their peer group, and stop waiting until they’re an adult to do something meaningful.

The Liftoff Beta Program begins on November 29th, and the enrollment window is open until next Friday. If you know a high schooler who'd enjoy this program, send them this application link and encourage them to sign up.

The Score Takes Care of Itself

Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls as the coach for the San Francisco 49ers. He’s famous for the discipline he maintained not just on the field, but off the field too.

His high standards of performance began with simple front-office tasks. He wrote detailed instructions for receptionists about how to answer the phone professionally. All phone calls had to be returned within 24 hours. All receptionists had to pick up the phone by saying: “San Francisco 49ers headquarters. How may I assist you?”

Walsh’s culture of precision showed up on the football field too. During practice, passing routes were planned to the inch, so receivers could land their cleats on the precise, predetermined blades of grass at the perfect time when the quarterback threw the ball on game day. The coaching staff also had a precise way of operating. Like the Moneyball movement across the Bay in Oakland, the 49ers analyzed each position meticulously. For the offensive linemen, they identified thirty specific actions each player must take to perform at the highest level. Coaches created drills for each and practiced them until they were second nature.

What strikes me about Walsh’s philosophy is how little he talks about his actual football games. Instead, he ensured his excellence philosophy extended to every little detail. When you get them right, “the score takes care of itself.”

My industry, education, has much lower standards. It's an example of what Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph calls "managed dissatisfaction." Due dates and late fees were Blockbuster's biggest vulnerability, so Netflix attacked them directly. Randolph writes: "You always want to compete against someone who has 'managed dissatisfaction' at the heart of their business model."

I once audited a course at Columbia University where the professor spent the first 15 minutes ruminating about what he'd discuss that day. During my undergrad years, a professor admitted: “As faculty, we don’t take those end-of-semester performance reviews very seriously. We just sorta skim them and move on.” His words squared with my experience. Too many of my teachers were checked out. It was as if they were so bogged down in bureaucracy that they couldn’t focus on being great teachers.

We believe that by applying Walsh's attention to detail, we can remedy the managed dissatisfaction in the education industry.

How do we apply Walsh’s methods?

At Write of Passage, we apply Walsh’s intensity to writing education. If 49ers plays are planned to the inch, our live sessions are planned to the second. After every live session, a seven-person team (including me) debriefs for an hour about what did or didn’t go well. By the end of the conversation, we have a detailed list of things to improve before the next cohort. For the first two years, I personally called every student who asked for a refund, and I still sometimes do this. We also read every piece of qualitative feedback that students send us. Our improvement plan is compiled into a memo and game plan for the next cohort.

The challenge is knowing which details to focus on. Last week, I had dinner with a guy who worked closely with Michael Dell, and when I asked him what Dell's core strength was, he said: "He was obsessed with the details that mattered." He also worked for Steve Jobs, who focused on an entirely different set of details, usually related to product and marketing (Jobs didn't have Dell's grasp over the company finances).

Some details are critical. The vast majority don't matter. You must separate the crucial from the inconsequential to build anything of lasting importance. Some little things are of extreme importance. And when the details matter, they really matter.

Get those details right and the score may take care of itself.

On the theme of obsession with details that matter – I'm still looking to hire my Chief of Staff for Write of Passage. This is such a key role for me and the business that we have gone through a few iterations of what we are looking for to find the perfect fit. I have updated the role description to reflect the priorities as we now see them, and you can find it here.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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