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The Science of Success!

A good player rarely makes a good coach

I never quite understood what it tried to say, till I discovered this whole new genre of Hollywood
Cool Running- Coach and team
movies, where a bunch of skinny, dorky looking teenagers come together to beat the star players of the school in a game of baseball, or football, basically any team sport. This whole feat is however impossible, without the guidance of a rather obscure (career wise, of course) coach who has been ousted by the community or who just knows the game too well to be bothered by some trophy that other coaches crave for. But don’t be fooled by their rather tragic past, or even their rude, unkempt demeanour there is something that makes you root for them despite the fact that their track record is not very good. Logically speaking, they have far too much experience losing, which is why we as the audience is always eager to dismiss them as backbenchers, let alone a team to have potential to win. Why is it, (if not for the empathetic angle created by the brilliant director) that we presume when a team or person has the maximum wins, he is bound to win every time? We even go a step further and presume that if we replicate their story, we are bound to win as well. This is what psychologists like to call a Survivorship Bias.

Abraham WaldConfusing, I know, which is why I hounded the internet for some place that could break it down for me, and I found this TEDX talk by David McRaney - of “You Are Not So Smart”. He starts off talking about the American Operational Research Team that was set up to solve mathematical and statistical problems during the Second World War. During a war you are constantly looking out for your troops trying to have the highest number of survivors, which was what the American Operational Team was set up for. Fighter planes were precious and so were their pilots, and getting them back in workable condition after a bombing was pivotal, except, that their numbers were steadily dwindling. The crafts that came back were asked to mark the areas that had hits, and soon a pattern formed.  There was a concentration of hit in particular areas and the General saw this and immediately ordered those areas to be reinforced with metal. This was exactly the kind of thinking you and I would do, but it was  Abraham Wald, a noted statistician, who also happened to be on the team saw it differently, he intervened and asked for the area that was not hit to get further reinforcement (WHAT!!!).  
His explanation - The aircraft that made it safe and sound came back despite getting hit terribly, meaning that those regions were not vital for the aircraft’s survival. The aircrafts that didn’t return, probably suffered hits in those important places, which is why they didn’t return. This slight change in where the metal reinforcement was added proved extremely valuable to the American Air force, increasing the number of surviving aircrafts dramatically. This bias that you and I or even the General had for that matter is what statisticians like to call, Survivorship bias.     
That was the war; David also spoke about how we see this bias in our everyday lives.  Where we seek advice or consciously listen to those who have made it big in a particular field, or have achieved success in some way. While they tend to give excellent advice on how to succeed, they fall flat when you have to know the details on how not to fail. David further mentions that it is the losers, the failures, and the not so successful stories that we ought to follow and meticulously note to actually gain some useful knowledge, because that is where wisdom truly is.
What did you say
This brings us back to the proverbial English saying ‘the best players rarely make for the best coaches’. When you are a success, you don’t tend to realise the intricacies of what makes for a good player, what works in the case of a good player or a success story, is seldom what can be mapped out into a template for potential candidates to follow. What a coach brings in is mastery, which comes with not just succeeding, but, and most importantly with a lot of failing.
Take for example a simple act of making an omelette. You love how your mom makes it, you observe, get the recipe, and think well let’s do this and you get it right the first time. You try it another time and well, let’s just say, it misses something, and the third time it just refuses to rise. You getting it right once does not guarantee your success the next time around as well.  After a few successes, when you encounter one bump, you tend to cloud yourself by going over all your success, when what you should be doing is going over your failures, or what you did wrong- overcoming the survivorship bias. You may tend to repeat your actions keeping your success in mind, but it is the failure that you need to take notes of. May be you didn’t beat the eggs, may be you put in salt or cheese at the wrong time or your pan was not hot enough. It is through the process of elimination or the errors that you get to succeed, and that’s what Mastery teaches you, and in essence, elimination of the survivorship bias.
So in pursuit of becoming a master of something, you invariably, come across failure and in turn learn how to overcome it in order to produce similar, successful results.

omlette- mouth watering, still perfect
Mouth-watering image taken from
So the moral here is to look at anything without having any sort of bias of your own. It is very VERY difficult, given we are human and not machines, but look at it like this. Say that you look at the whole thing as a set of data. What you have with a player who has kept winning all his life without struggle is limited data, as in something that just gives you one side of the story and what you have with experience and someone who has fallen down a couple of times is a huge bag of data, that gives you both sides of the picture, giving you very valuable set of information you can work with. It is up to us, the people interpreting the data, how to use that information, because in the end it is just a set of random data. So what a really good coach, or a master truly does is looks at the set of data and uses it to his advantage. A master has over the years collected so much information that he can successfully predict, repeat and in the truest sense of the word master the subject of his study.  
I leave you with two extremely interesting ted talks about what I have ranting on about – Missing what's missing - David McRany

Sarah Lewis on How to Embrace the near wins


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