Would You Do Something Silly to Succeed?

downloadI recently learned that bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History. This was music to my ears, because Gladwell always tells interesting stories, and I like the cadence of his voice.

I think the podcast will provide fodder for several blog entries in the coming week. As of now I’ve listened to 3 episodes, and it’s Episode 3 that sparked questions and ideas.

The episode is centered around Wilt Chamberlain, one of the best NBA players of all time. Chamberlain was a prolific scorer, but he had one big weakness: He was a very poor free-throw shooter. Opponents would try to slow him down by fouling him.

For a brief period, Chamberlain tried shooting free throws underhanded. A “granny shot,” as we’d say on the playground. And he was quite good at it. His free-throw percentage skyrocketed.

And then he went back to shooting overhand.

The episode is about how people often avoid doing “silly” things, even if those methods would make us more successful. It’s human nature–we don’t want to look silly in front of our peers.

As I listened, I tried putting myself in Chamberlain’s big shoes: If I could score 8-10 more points each game by looking silly, would I do it? Would I do it for me and/or my team?

I consider myself a rational, pragmatic person. By the numbers, the correct choice is the shoot underhanded. Despite that, I just can’t see myself doing that. Not even if it were just on the playground.

That said, I once did something like that, and it burns a hole in my memory. It actually confirms that I wish I hadn’t done the logical thing.

I was in a kickball league a few years ago, just a fun rec league. In the league, women were allowed to bunt and men were not. However, there was a special game one weekend between the top two teams in the league, and for that one game (which had silly rules like “you have to drink part of a beer at every base”–it was that kind of league), everyone was allowed to bunt.

I’m a sprinter, so there was zero chance someone was going to throw me out at first if I bunted. Conversely, even for experienced kickball players, it’s fairly common to fly out. So I did the best thing for my team: I bunted every time. Three at bats, three bunts.

I’m telling you, I got ridiculed by the opposing team. Whenever I stopped at a based, the taunting was relentless. It definitely got under my skin. It wasn’t just friendly jabbing–it was cruel. By my fourth time at the plate, I gave in to it, and I just kicked the ball as normal (it was a home run, so maybe I should have been doing that the whole time).

Anyway, my point is that I did the logical thing even though it looked silly. It was highly successful in terms of the goal–get on base–but a complete disaster in terms of self esteem and human decency. It was the right choice for the team, but it was definitely the wrong decision. I’d take it back if I could, even if I flied out every time.

Now that I recall that story, I get where Wilt Chamberlain is coming from. Do you? What would you do in those (or other similar) situations?