We celebrate the big wins. But it’s the little wins that make them possible.
In the 21st century, we love advanced statistics. I’m a baseball fan — this article is going to be heavy on the baseball, God be praised and glorified for Spring Training, amen — and baseball has been for a very long time the Mecca of statistics and statistical analysis. This truth was made all the more obvious by Moneyball and its ilk, but some of us were working rotisserie lineups back when you had to buy huge almanacs and pore over tiny box scores in the newspaper.
Anyway, baseball fans have long been attached to the idea that a .250 hitter is meh, and a .300 hitter belongs in the Hall of Fame, without realizing something very interesting:
If you didn’t keep a detailed scorebook, you would never be able to tell the difference.
Let’s postulate a baseball season in which every day is game day. Let’s further say that you hit sixth, so that you’re going to get up four times a game, on average. You steadily get one hit every four at-bats, or a perfect .250 average — good enough to play every day, but no kind of all-star (absent other things like hitting homers, which we’re ignoring for now). You want to raise your average from .250 to something a little more eye-catching, because it’s a contract year. In fact, you want to make the all-star game. What do you need to do?
You need to get one more hit every five games. That’s all. If you just get one more hit per WEEK, you go from .250 to .286. If all you do is walk, instead of strike out, in ONE at-bat that week, your average goes from .250 to .260.
No way on earth anyone watching your games without a scorebook would ever be able to see that. It would be absolutely invisible.
I don’t think we understand this very well. We tend to make our judgments about people on very, very arbitrary measurements, like the six minutes of our lived when we were actually watching them, without considering that there might be more going on than is apparent from our limited perspective, something that might only be noticeable if we kept watch for a long time.
There’s a trap in the other direction as well — and we should get it out of the way right now. As a culture, we tend to worship advanced statistics, but I think we don’t consider very well both their real power — and their limitations.
Limitation: we like to use them as predictors. But they are not predictive. Mythical Player shoots 47.3% from 15 feet on the left angle when closely guarded. He shoots 39.8% from 15 feet on the left baseline when closely guarded. Therefore we should push him to the baseline whenever possible.
In the absence of all other factors, yes. But that difference of 7.5% represents — get ready for this — TWO MADE SHOTS A SEASON.
In other words, that difference is so small it predicts nothing. Mythical is not realistically any less likely to make one shot than the other. There is no functional difference between a player that shoots 79% from the free-throw line and one that shoots 81%. It feels like there is. But there isn’t.
Even where the statistical difference is enormous, or the sample size is very large, statistics still don’t predict what is going to happen to this player on this play — or to this person on this day — with any reliability. Will you “get a hit” on this at-bat, or not? Well, you’ve got a 25% chance. Or maybe a 28% chance.
Not, in the aggregate, much of a difference. Nothing to speak of, really. Unnoticeable. Unimportant. The difference is so small as to vanish into the background of our experience. We should realize this.
Power: But, of course, the extra walk matters. For you League of Legends fans, wave pushing matters. You don’t have to get a kill to make a difference.
At the highest levels of performance, knowing that you shoot 8% better from the angle than down on the baseline matters. An artist I love, Jake Parker, says “People vastly overestimate what they can get done in a day, but vastly underestimate what they can get done in a year.”
I like that. Over the last couple months, I created a highly persona system to help me be more mindful of what I’m doing with my time, with an eye toward playing at a major-league level every day. I am, after all, a professional. I get paid to do the things I’m doing. Am I a bench player, or a utility backup, a platooner, an every-day guy, a critical piece, or an all-star? Or — dare I think it — a Hall of Famer?
Well, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between most of those if I weren’t doing some stat-keeping. Since my life is not a sport, and isn’t made of six dozen things that can be quantified and analyzed by legions of statisticians, I have to do what I can. What I should be looking for first is consistency.
Did I write today? Professional writers write. Consistently.
Did I spend time showing my wife and children that I love them? Professional husbands and fathers show that love consistently.
Did I pray today? Professional worshippers worship. Those intent on becoming more like their God check in for discussion and instruction. Consistently.
Did I show up and do my job in the classroom today? Teachers teach. Good teachers teach well. Great teachers create the conditions under which their students’ lives can change for the better. Consistently.
And so on. I often get into the trap of thinking that if I didn’t write War and Peace today I didn’t do a good enough job. But that’s not right. The question I should be asking is not “did I climb Everest today” but “is my tent pitched even a few feet farther up the mountain than it was yesterday”?
Even in the offseason, Tom Brady has a workout regimen. Even in “time off” — and he takes time off, like everyone — he doesn’t hit the buffet line in Vegas and put on 30 pounds in a two-week binge. There’s a minimum level of performance even when he’s not playing a game that day. He makes incremental progress even when he’s not on the field. It is the accumulation of those increments (plus, yeah, some luck) that makes him the (I hate even writing this sentence) the greatest quarterback of all time.
But then, some days, we’re just not feeling it. We can’t be in the zone every day. We get tired and we get sad and we get injured and so on. On those days, hitting a pair of grand slams is not happening. Not every sketch will turn out to be the Mona Lisa. That day, maybe all we can do is foul off a bunch of pitches. We’re still going to ground out to short — but maybe we can do it on pitch six instead of five. One more pitch to each hitter means the pitcher comes out of the game two innings sooner. One more sentence written means that a month from now we will have written two pages of text. A year from now, that’s 25 pages. That’s a whole book, in a decade. Sound slow? How many people do we know that haven’t done it in four decades, no matter how much they say they want to?
My system has been pretty good at getting me to remember to be mindful of things — body, soul, attitude — but not so good at the fine distinctions — does this “count” or not. I want to encourage myself — and I want to encourage you, dear reader — to do a little something in each area of your life every day, even if it isn’t much. Just a little. See one more pitch. Make the guy take one more dribble. Force the other laner to back just one more time. Maybe it won’t make a difference — almost certainly the difference, if there is one, will be so small I won’t really see it — but I trust and believe that the accumulation of differences will, over time, lead to something dramatic.
Championships are built out of going 1 for 4. With a walk.