5 things ideas people can learn from athletes about perseverance and growth.

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Afew years ago I was going through a really bad period at work. Ideas came harder, and when they did, they just didn’t seem to measure up. On the outside, things were just fine, but it didn’t take away the negative self-talk and belief that I was a fraud and had no idea what I was doing.

One afternoon, I sat down with our creative director and we talked about the highs and lows of coming up with ideas, and riding out the troughs. Inspired, and determined to continue that feel good vibe, i went online to look for more help. Many cat videos later, I stumbled upon an interesting fact.

I wasn’t familiar with baseball, but I knew the name Babe Ruth. His batting average was a .342, meaning that out of 1000 swings, on average he only made a hit 342 times! (You’re supposedly a rock-star if you hit above .300) Derek Jeter, a recently retired player had a .310 average, hitting 3448 times out of 11,119 at bat, and that awesomeness got him his own ad! 

Naturally, home runs came even rarer! (Derek Jeter had a career total of 259) Those numbers helped put things in perspective for me, which led to this first lesson.

Lesson 1: You’ve got to keep going even though you miss alot

Even at the highest levels of performance, these guys miss a whole lot. But that’s okay. It’s expected. So they keep showing up and swinging.

My favourite author Neil Gaiman gave some advice to a young writer about writer’s block preventing her from action.

…it’s probably more honest to think of it as a combination of laziness, perfectionism and getting stuck. If you’re being lazy, don’t be. If you’re being a perfectionist, don’t be. And if you’re stuck, figure out where the story went off the rails, or what you got wrong, or where you need to go deeper, or what you need to add to make it work, and then start writing again. But instead of letting the hesitation hold you back from doing anything, you show up and do the work.Neil Gaiman

Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful Ted talk agrees, and she offers interesting perspective on the origins of the word ‘genius’ and how we can be more compassionate with ourselves and our own expectations.

Or if you’d like a more spirited phrase Wieden & Kennedy’s philosophy of “Fail Harder” is great in its encouragement to embrace failure, as that’s when we learn.

Lesson 2: It’s not just putting in the time, it’s training right

This second lesson builds upon the first one. Showing up and doing the work regardless of how we feel is one thing, but if we want to get better more effectively, we should be practicing mindfully.

You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.Michael Jordan

Jim Clifton points out one way of doing, which is to find and build upon your strengthsWhile I appreciate and agree with their general advice that you should leverage your strengths and manage your weaknesses, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to hide from developing a skill that you think is necessary to help you reach your goals.

My own experience is this; I don’t have a good eye for design, and it was evident in the powerpoint presentations I used to build. My goal then wasn’t so much to become a slide-ninja, but to level up to be good enough at a 7/10, rather than breaking my neck to bring it up to a 10/10. (Every blue moon, I might get to an 8, depending on who’s judging!)

Give a think about what you’d like to improve upon, and find specific ways of training and feedback to help you.

Lesson 3: You need to find quality feedback, the way you like it

I’m a fan of CrossFit and a partner of the pioneer CrossFit gym here in Malaysia. The years of observing the training our coaches provide has taught me that different people respond to different cues. The same instructions given to a group will result in some getting it, and some not. The same observation and realization occurred when I was mentoring people in the agency.

The MBTI framework is one possible tool to help you understand yourself better. Briefly, the tool supposes that people differ in 4 key areas, which are preferences of how we think (Important: It doesn’t measure how good we are at it!). It identifies whether we prefer to:

  • Focus on information that’s right in front of you, or focusing on looking out for patterns in that information
  • Making decisions on that are based on objective facts or subjective evaluation
  • Engage with the world as and when it happens, or would only feel comfortable with order
  • Get energy from engaging with others, or with your inner self

Learning to understand yourself better is worthwhile if it helps you figure out the best way you’d learn or operate. Whether it’s using the MBTI or the Gallup Strengths Finder (mentioned in the previous lesson), sometimes people have this mindset of “Oh, but that’s so obvious”, or “Doh, of course it’s going to say that, I pretty much answered 200 questions on ME”.

The point behind some of these things might be clearer with this metaphor. Imagine if someone held one of those visual illusion puzzles in front of you. At first the picture just looks bland or pointless. The moment you see that hidden image, the appreciation and understanding of that picture suddenly jumps. You get it, and you never really look at it the same way again. To me, both those tools helped me achieve better awareness of myself. They weren’t revelations of the century, but they certainly helped me see the picture in a new way, and helped me focus.

Alongside a few other useful tips, Scott Berkun advises that you need to be specific in the feedback you’re asking for, instead of being general about it.

Ask a vague question and you get a vague answer. Instead ask focused questions like “How can I make this better?”, “What did I miss?” or “does this design solve these three objectives?” This gives the other person something to aim for. You, as the feedback asker, have to frame what kind of feedback you desire, simplifying the work for the other person.Scott Berkun

Lesson 4: You need to WANT to win

Some pros on the tour may go cold when Tiger Woods is on the roster. That’s when they run the risk of subconsciously conceding their game before they even tee off. Entertaining negative “losing thoughts” chips away at your confidence, causing your game to suffer.Loren Fogelman

There was one pitch I went through where a competing agency had a superstar talent, and you could see that effect immediately upon the entire team. Naturally, people were talking, trying to predict how that person would act, and at times caused us to second guess ourselves. While this didn’t prevent work from being done, it added unnecessary stress. Besides the fact that we didn’t have a choice, we still pushed ahead and the desire to win ensured that we didn’t put any less effort into the work.

David Droga, a leading creative mind, who has won more awards than a warehouse could fit, recently said this during Cannes 2014:

I still feel that I’m this scrappy, feisty creative person,” he said. “I haven’t lost that quest and that thirst to do something great.David Droga

Whether you’re starting out, or at the pinnacle of your career, if you’re out there playing, keep that desire to win burning, even if the odds seem against you.

In the event your inner critic rears its evil head, this article recommends you writing out what your inner critic is saying about you, as if it were someone else. Eg; Instead of writing “I’m not creative”, write “You’re not creative”. Then go on to write a more realistic and compassionate view of yourself, but phrased in the first person. “I’m capable of great work”. It’s not meant to be a self-motivation speech, but merely a way to note down kinder and more honest views of yourself. You might find that you were over-critical and perhaps even weed out inaccurate perceptions, while recognising objectively the value you see in yourself.

Lesson 5: When the team wins, you win

If you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.Michael Jordan

For many of us in the ideas industry, it’s a team game. Much like football, especially after Germany took the World Cup, they proved to the world how an effective team will outperform teams with ‘superstars’.

In today’s environment, most of us see an increased need to collaborate with others. Working together in those circumstances can be difficult for many reasons, but a client survey and this agency have found that integration is increasingly important.

For the softer side of things, as individuals, it always pays to try and get to know the other guys better to help foster better understanding. Starting a project with a strong foundation that outlines the goals and tasks for everyone is the first step in nurturing good teamwork. This is even more important if you’re a leader, as your team will likely take cues from you on how you interact and deal with others.

Another thing to consider is using collaboration software that helps working teams be clearer about roles and tasks like Trello.



It’s inevitable that we go through the troughs, but it’s useful to think of yourself as an ‘Idea Athlete’, and adopt mindsets and practices of real ones. With these few tips, and the willingness to grow, we’ll rise again faster and stronger. And maybe the internet won’t need that many baby animal videos.

What about you? Do share if you’ve got a great tip or learning that got you out of a slump or helped you grow.

Soon Min5 things ideas people can learn from athletes about perseverance and growth.