Albert Pujols and the Secret to Spontaneous Greatness
My brother Tom is a gifted engineer and software developer. He was also my partner in the business we started. One day he said, “I’ve been trying to figure out how you make decisions. I can’t figure it out, but I have to admit that you’re almost always right. So what’s the secret?”
Coming from a younger sibling this was high praise indeed. But all I could say was, “Honestly Tom, I have no idea. I just make decisions.”
* * *One of my favorite concepts from the ancient mystics is “as above so below.” It’s more scientific equivalent is that the macrocosm is recapitulated in the microcosm. Both versions are trying to capture that -like an infinite series of nestedRussian Dolls- the same laws that govern the heavens apply to the tiniest triviality here on earth.
Bryan Burwell recently published an article called Pujols’ Instincts Shine in One Great Play. His article uses the microcosm of a single play to unlock the secrets to the macrocosm of baseball. But for those who have eyes to see, he also unlocks the cosmic secret to every great decision as well.
In a previous article, I extolled the virtues of counterintuitive thinking for discerning what actually is true from what only seems true. Burwell makes the same point when he begins his description of Pujols’ magical play with “What the rest of us saw:” According to Burwell, what the rest of us saw with our untrained eyes was Pujols counter intuitively eschewing a safe bet and certain out at first base in favor of a high risk throw to third instead. As Burwell said,
“In the blink of an eye- and perhaps only through the remarkably instinctive eyes of Pujols- the Cardinals first baseman saw a play unfold in front of him that most major league players could never envision, much less execute.”
In the macrocosms of business and life we all want Pujols’ ability to envision what others don’t and the discipline to execute on that vision. Success in business for example, is little more than “envisioning” a unique opportunity and coupling it with crisp execution. So with this in mind, how can we apply the microcosm of a single baseball play to the macrocosm of success?
First of all Burwell’s use of the word “instinct” is misleading. Strictly speaking Pujols may breathe instinctively but he has acquired his ability to “envision” the opportunity and act on it successfully. What Pujols actually did was take something natural—his innate talent- and through constant practice turn it into something so unconsciously automatic that it is now second nature.
This explains why Pujols, when asked about the play, only shrugged and said, “You just need to know. Those are plays that happen and you just react.” Pujols’ creative genius has become so ingrained that his decision-making process is now inaccessible even to him.
This interrelationship between what is natural and second nature is so common that it is not surprising that many second nature abilities are erroneously ascribed to instinct. For example it is natural for a baby to talk. Children are hardwired with both the talent or potential to talk and the instinct to act on this talent. No formal training is needed; children unconsciously teach themselves to talk without any apparent effort.
However learning to read and write is not natural. Yes, most children are naturally gifted with the potential to read and write. But without lots of conscious effort this implicit potential will never become explicit second nature. You have probably forgotten how hard and tedious it was to learn to read and write. If someone asked how you manage to read so effortlessly today, like Pujols, all you could do is shrug and say, “I have no idea how I do it. I just do it.”
Whether you want to become a baseball player, a leader, a better parent, or a saint your journey will take you through three distinct phases. The first phase is the longing to change and grow. At this phase your innate talent or potential is unconscious, dormant or asleep but you sense it is there. The second phase is using conscious effort to bring your dormant potential to life. This training phase is usually so frustrating and confusing that, like learning to drive a car, your conscious mind may feel overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The third phase is consolidation. Your newly acquired skill has become second nature to the point that, for example, you are now able to unconsciously drive without thinking about it. This process of growth can be summarized as a journey from unconsciousness, to consciousness, and back to unconsciousness.
Like Pujols, being a successful leader means making better decisions than your competition; even if your competition is just your natural human tendency to make poor decisions. We all have the unconscious potential to make better decisions. However most of us are unwilling to put in the kind of conscious effort it takes to train our minds to automatically spit out ever better decisions until, like Pujols, the secret to great decision-making is a secret even to ourselves.
If the high praise I received from a younger brother is in fact deserved, I credit my teachers. Like a rookie endlessly watching film at the elbow of an implacable coach, my teachers taught me to consciously analyze every personal and professional decision I made. It was always exhausting and often excruciating, but no matter how overwhelmed I might feel, I was sent right back to the field to try again. Again and again we repeated this exercise until this self-correcting process became a second nature “instinct” whirling away without any conscious effort on my part. The greatest decisions, like Pujols’ throw to third, are spontaneous improvisations. Spontaneity itself is such a magical state of effortless productivity that it is the most sought after of all human conditions. Spontaneity is so seductive that the allure of mystical traditions like Zen Buddhism lies largely in their counter intuitive claim that we can live our entire lives in a state of spontaneous freedom.
However in our unending quest for Pujols’ Zen-like spontaneity we should remember what the director, Francis Ford Coppola, told an obviously drug impaired Dennis Hopper during the making of Apocalypse Now.
“Dennis, you don’t know your lines.”
“But Francis, you told us to forget our lines.”
“Yes Dennis, but you learn them first. Then you forget them.”
The lesson from Pujols and Coppola is that spontaneity is not the absence of effort. It is the transcendence of effort.
Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, or check out my Forbes.com articles on http://blogs.forbes.com/augustturak/ for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.