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?


6 thoughts on “Would You Do Something Silly to Succeed?”

  1. Wow, this is an interesting article. The first question I have is why did “they” give you such a hard time to start with? It’s a game, and a “light-hearted version at that”

    1.Was it that you where playing to a strength and they where frustrated they could not stop you?
    2.Where they trying to manipulate you to stop so they could have a better chance at winning?
    3.Did they feel that you where not playing up to your potential? (that might cause me hesitation, but in context of the type of game probably not.). In your case perhaps this may be a factor you did score a home run.

    If you are not hurting anyone with what you are doing, why not dance like no one is watching (and let them watch).

    Be different, be fun, let that which does not matter truly slide.

    Life is too short not to enjoy yourself at every opportunity.

    Jesters Hand

    • Patrick: My hunch is that they were a little drunk and weren’t thinking about their motivations. Also, perhaps it was I who was taking the game too seriously. I wanted to help my team, but at the same time, I have more fun if I get to run along the basepaths, so by ensuring I got to first at least, it was more fun for me. At least, it should have been!

  2. Exactly as Patrick said. The opposing team’s taunting and, quite frankly, bad sportsmanship was actually more about them than it was about you. It’s difficult in the heat of the moment to parse that and just keep keepin’ on and letting your freak flag fly.

    The question is, can you do the job? The answer is yes. Can you do the job in the traditionally accepted way? Maybe – but, what’s wrong with getting the job done in your own manner? The result is the same – or even and improvement.

    Do what you do how you do it and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    • David: The pragmatic side of me agrees with you. The other side of me wishes I had a happy memory about my last game of kickball instead of the memory of that day. 🙂

  3. Well I’ll selfishly say that this new development, the Gladwell podcast being a new favourite thing and the spark for future blog posts, is something that I find super cool. Not only can I read about a game designer’s “day to day” and his opinions, but I get to geek out on Gladwell as well. I read The Tipping Point shortly after it was released in paperback and it was one of the most enjoyable and formative reads of my life. I’ve bought all his other books since then and am a fan. His appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert clued me in about the new podcast which I’m now catching up on.

    As for the “logical” things I’ve chosen to do over the years… I must be partially blocking out some memories from high school because back then, no matter how I initially thought certain choices made sense, I paid for them with some embarassing reprisals. Otherwise, as a parent I do the logical things so that my children can have what they need or want… so I’ll look or feel as goofy as I need to. No regrets there.


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