Greg Maddux and Why Being the Best is Overrated

Baseball is not a game for everyone, but I've found that those who love it will almost always have a favorite player. And their love for this player likely comes less from their skill or batting average than it does from some characteristic that they see (or would like to see) in themselves.

For some, it is the unbridled confidence of Ricky Henderson, for many others it is the strong will and quiet courage of Jackie Robinson. For me, that player is Cal Ripken Jr.—and not just because I'm named after him. Cal Ripken was nicknamed the Iron Man after he broke Lou Gehrig's (a.k.a. the Iron Horse) record for the most consecutive games played with a streak ending at 2,632 games. Besides Ripken's incredible career numbers, to me "the streak" was what made him my favorite. During that streak he played with various illnesses and injuries, but always showed up every day to do his job. 

  Photo source: USA Today

Photo source: USA Today

If I were asked my second favorite player however, I would not hesitate to say Greg Maddux. Greg Maddux pitched for the Cubs, Braves, Padres, and Dodgers over the course of a 23 year career and is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He has the second most wins (355) of any pitcher in the live ball era, the 10th most strikeouts (3,371), won 4 Cy-Young Awards, and is the only pitcher to win at least 15 games for 17 straight seasons. And while, those numbers already make him undeniably great, to me his greatness comes from another, less discussed statistic. Namely, the 18 Gold Glove Awards he won which are given to the best defensive players at each position each year. This is more than any other player in history. 

  Photo source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Photo source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

My admiration for Greg Maddux has grown long after his retirement because of a somewhat recent phenomenon known as “the yips." The yips is a real medical condition where there is a spasm in the wrist but in baseball it usually refers to the loss of ability to make short, simple throws. The first I heard of the yips was in relation to Matt Garza who is a highly skilled pitcher that struggles throwing the ball to first base. 

This is a guy who could throw a well-located 85 mph slider consistently, but when asked to field a soft grounder and throw it 50 feet to first base, he often failed. John Lester suffered from a similar issue with throws to first base.

In recent years, this problem has increased with more and more pitchers, unable to make simple throws but still throwing 95 mph fastballs to a 3-inch square over and over, once they get on the mound. There are almost comical instances of pitchers under-handing the ball from across the infield for fear of throwing it into the stands or even just fielding the ball and racing the batter to first base for the out. 

I can't be sure of the exact cause, but I do know that pitchers have become more and more specialized over the years. They are used in very specific situations for certain hitters. Not to mention the competition to make it to the MLB is so intense that to make it as a pitcher, you must operate under the assumption that every second spent not working on pitching would be decreasing your chances of making it in the big leagues. 

But I think Greg Maddux had a different idea of what makes a great pitcher. It wasn't an overpowering fastball or a nasty curveball. It was an intelligence that exploited every possible advantage he could. There is one story told of Maddux pitching to Jeff Bagwell during the regular season and purposefully allowing him to hit a home run so that when he would face Bagwell in the playoffs a few months later, Bagwell would be looking for that pitch only to have Maddux deny him.

  Photo source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Photo source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

He understood that once he let go of each pitch, he was now another infielder. So he could rely on his incredible ability to locate pitches wherever he wanted and hope the other 8 guys on the field would be enough. Or he could take some extra ground balls each day and become a major league infielder as well. As a middle infielder, back when I played baseball (cue Glory Days by Bruce Springsteen), I always appreciated a pitcher who could consistently field ground balls up the middle, freeing me up to cover other areas of the infield. For very little effort, Maddux was able to make his infield that much more impenetrable. And for that extra effort, from 1990-2008 he was awarded with every NL Pitching Gold Glove, except one. 

And this is why my other baseball hero is Greg Maddux. It wasn't the strikeouts, the wins, or the change up. It was that he was a true generalist. He wasn't the most overpowering pitcher with the nastiest off-speed pitches but he was good enough. Pitchers can lift weights and train to throw harder but at a certain point, being able to throw 100mph is genetic. But Greg Maddux made sure he was as good as he could be in every other aspect of the game. His defense, his movement, his location, his knowledge of the opposing team and each hitter's weaknesses. He wasn't a bad hitter either with a .171 lifetime batting average which is great for a pitcher. After all, stellar individual statistics are only meaningful insofar as they help your team win.

While Cal Ripken Jr. said "there is a job to be done, so I will do it no matter what," Greg Maddux was saying "there are several jobs to be done, and I'm not going to let any of them fall through the cracks." Both worth admiring but for different reasons. 

This push for specialists goes beyond baseball though and is even more prominent in how one is told to find a career. So much time in universities these days is spent choosing what your major is, and then "what are you going to specialize in?" And then with your first internship "what do you want to focus on?" Some of this comes from an old assembly line model where you had to be superior at a very particular part of a given process so that things moved as efficiently as possible. But now, most of these processes are digital and will be taken over by computers and artificial intelligence where humans cannot even hope to compete (just consider the human brain can perform slightly less than 1000 operations per second while computer processors can perform about 10 billion in that same second). 

  Photo source: Mashable

Photo source: Mashable

So maybe more specialization isn't the answer anymore. Maybe it's the ones who can harness the thing humans still do better than computers—creativity. By combining several skill sets and learning about the other areas of the process, humans now have the ability to innovate and create while leaving the specialization to the computers. It's the software engineer who also understands marketing. Or the lawyer who is well versed in macro-economics. Never needing to be at the top of the field in any of these areas, but high enough to see the gaps and opportunities to produce amazing advancements. 

Baseball has changed over the years, but the rules have hardly changed at all in the last 100 years and probably won't in the future either, so I doubt this specialization trend of "set-up men" and “the yips," is going anywhere. But I think the rules of how careers are carved out are changing rapidly. One doesn't need to be the best anymore. In fact, no human will be the best in most cases (unless they artificially increase their brain's processing power). But it is possible to be a Greg Maddux and get to a high level in several areas to see the solutions that the specialists/computers could never see. It's more work but I think it's worth it.

Sources:

https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/maddux-greg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Maddux

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/maddugr01.shtml

Blue Flowers or: The Innumeracy of News

Originally published on Medium.com

Imagine you are looking out on a field of a endless yellow flowers. These flowers are always yellow, but there is a genetic mutation that causes one in every million of these flowers to turn blue.

Now imagine you continue walking past the field to where your grandmother lives. She is old and can’t leave the house anymore but she remembers the field of yellow flowers. She asks you to pick some flowers to bring back to her so she can smell them. So you walk back to the field and begin picking flowers when you come upon a blue flower.

It’s shocking and unexpected. It’s the exception. So you pick it and proceed to bring her a beautiful bunch of yellow flowers with one blue flower.

She is so excited to see the flowers and smell them and she can imagine the field you described. But then you show her the blue flower. She is intrigued by it and can’t look away. She even inadvertently drops the yellow flowers you brought her. She asks if you can bring her more blue flowers.

You’re a good grandchild, so you do.

And every day you go back out, looking for more blue flowers and each day you return with a flower. Sometimes it takes all day, but you always bring back the blue flowers because they make her so happy.

Soon she starts referring to the field as the “field of blue flowers.” But you feel strange, knowing that your grandmother is imagining a field of blue flowers where in fact, there is a field of yellow flowers.


We are drawn to outliers and oddities. They excite us. But this excitement also moves our benchmark for what is normal. It skews how we see the world and how often we think these events are happening because we are easily able conjure up an example. But this is exactly the type of exceptional information that news outlets and journalists bring us on a daily basis.

It’s an entire industry that depends on brushing aside all the yellow flowers to get to the blue one first. Or more commonly, “if it bleeds, it leads.” When someone is asked why they watch the news they generally say to “stay informed” or to know “what’s happening in the world.” But is that really true?

Let me be clear now, the consumers of news media and the creators of it play an equal role in the misinformation. I don’t mean fake news misinformation. I am not claiming that the content itself is misleading. Rather, I am referring to the disproportionate presentation of sensational material that leads to a perception of the world that is highly inaccurate.

They brought us a blue flower and we loved it. Now we collect them, and when they try to bring us yellow flowers, we turn them away. There are entire companies made of professional blue flower hunters. They know where they are likely to grow and how to ask the right juicy questions (this is where my metaphor starts to break down, if it hasn’t already).

But is a car bomb in Syria what’s “happening in the world?” Or is it just what’s happening on that street in Syria? Is the Twitter feed of a certain pumpkin coloured US President “keeping you informed?” Or is it just junk food for the mind? Is this stream of adrenaline pumped headlines making us better, or is it letting us ignore the parts of our own lives that we would rather not deal with?

These are questions I asked myself last year when I decided to delete all of the news apps off my phone. I’ve stopped watching or reading anything other than a weekly print edition of the Economist. I spend an hour or two reading it and then I put it away. The last year has been by far my most productive and happiest. Some have argued, “you have to stay informed!” or “how are you going to know if a nuclear bomb is headed right towards you?!” (the last one was a real argument presented to me). First of all, if I’m about to get nuked, I would prefer to spend my last moments doing what I am doing, not freaking out. Second of all, I question the assumption that I must “stay informed.”

I don’t believe that the way we have the most impact is by collecting the most information. I believe each of us have the most impact on those in our immediate area and in the situations where our skills can actually make a difference. There are too many problems in the world for you to worry about all of them. And way too many for you to think you can fix all of them without being a complete egomaniac.

But there are problems around you everyday that you could do something about. Things that you think are so small that they aren’t real problems because they don’t involve a war or a natural disaster. They are the yellow flowers. They are the ones that you walk past every day because you’re waiting for a blue flower. A “cause” that will make you a hero and really make a difference. But the truth is, blue flowers are one in a million for a reason.

So start picking some yellow flowers. Start dealing with your problems and the problems in your community. They might get ignored by the newspapers and media conglomerates, but they don’t have to be ignored by us.

Neuroscience to Marketing: Picking your major

Originally published on FutureRising.com

When I was deciding what to get my undergraduate degree in, I was often given the advice, "study what you’re interested in" or, "follow your passion." At the time, I was interested in biology and how the brain worked so I decided neuroscience would be the perfect fit and headed off to university. This was fine at first because I was busy focusing on the transition of leaving home and being more independent. But about three years into my degree, I realised that neuroscience was not something I was interested in anymore.

  It turns out the "follow your interests/passion" mantra, is terrible advice. Passions and interests are, by definition, fleeting and temporary which means they should not be factored into a decision affecting the rest of your life. Since then, I have thought a lot about this and read several books on the topic.

Here are three pieces of wisdom I found more useful for choosing a degree or career path when it’s not clear:

1. FIND WHAT IS ALWAYS INTERESTING TO YOU

While I was doing my undergraduate, I was required to take psychology classes and I found that they were the classes I enjoyed the most and performed the best in. I also took and enjoyed an intermediate fiction writing class which centred around developing believable and relatable characters. What I soon realised is that my interest in neuroscience, psychology, and character development all came from a broader interest in understanding why people do what they do and what motivates their behaviour.

So when deciding what field you want to go into, try to think about what is always interesting to you. Make a list of all the activities and subjects you enjoy and look for the common threads among them. Chances are, that will point you in the right direction.

2. FIND OUT WHAT YOU’RE BAD AT

Often, finding what you always enjoy is difficult because you only have a few things you enjoy. For me, prior to university, I refused to try new things. I had two or three things I knew I would generally succeed in so trying something new that I might be bad at, seemed ridiculous. Unfortunately, this gave me tunnel vision when it came to choosing a career path. Instead, I should have been constantly learning new things, trying new activities, or reading books. This is the only way you can have a large enough sample size to be able to find the patterns in the things you find stimulating and fun.  The internet makes this incredibly easy so you might as well use it.

3. MAKE SURE YOU’RE VALUABLE

At the end of the day, you will need to make a living with whatever you choose to make sure what you’re pursuing is valued by at least some people somewhere. This is not to say you should base your future on money, but you should base it on if you are going to solve problems that people need solving. Whether that’s making progress on cancer research or trying to find the right way for a company to communicate with its customers, it should be something people are willing to pay you to do. After all, if you are being paid for your work it means you are generating value for somebody else. While you might think your handmade quilts are amazing, if nobody wants to buy them it doesn’t matter what you think.


A year after graduating I decided to go back to school to get an MSc in Marketing. After reading new books and exploring new areas, I found that marketing would allow me to explore human behaviours while also letting me interact with people and working my creative muscle. I have no regrets about getting my degree in neuroscience and have actually found it quite valuable in my subsequent studies.

Your chances of nailing exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 20, are slim. Think about the three steps above and make your decision but after that, just do your best and be ready to adapt.

 

How to Make Your Final Year at University Count

Originally published on FutureRising.com

Your last year can in fact be the most fun and transformative year of schooling. But it can also be stressful, overwhelming and anxiety ridden, as you attempt to start your career while taking the most difficult modules in your degree. Your final year should centre around making yourself indispensable, not replaceable.

I finished my undergraduate degree a few years ago and made mistakes in every area I’m about to discuss so when I started a masters last year, I vowed to not repeat them. I am now finishing my course and this is what I’ve learned.

GRADES UNFORTUNATELY STILL MATTER

I would argue grades are not the most important part of your CV, but they do make the rest of it much easier to talk about. They are less a measure of intellect than they are a measure of work ethic. It took me a couple years to find my system for studying but once I did, it made it much easier to get involved in other activities. On a CV, good grades are the primer, everything else is the paint.

BE INTERESTED

As Dale Carnegie said, "To be interesting, be interested." what he meant was if you would like to engage other people, the best thing you can do is be interested in them. This means taking a genuine interest in many different topics.

During the four years of my bachelor’s degree, I probably read a total of one book outside of assigned readings while this year, (after realising how boring I was) I’ve read about 20 books for enjoyment.

If you want to build a rapport while networking in your final year, the best thing you can do is have more to talk about than the other students in your cohort and that starts by stepping outside your comfort zone of knowledge. Go take a cooking class or pick up a book about a banana mogul.

PARTY LIKE AN ADULT

Invite friends over and make them dinner, go to that new pizza place with a group, or host a potluck. A dinner party is where real conversation can occur and friendships can flourish.

I’m not saying standing in a student flat with 100 other people shouting at each other and breathing in the fog of humanity is not fun, but perhaps there are better ways to spend your time. Work on making nights you remember forever, not ones you can’t even remember the next day.

START WORKING ON YOUR SIX-PACK NOW

Despite what you may believe, you have more time on your hands now than you will once you start working, so now is the time to establish your routines. It can make a tremendous difference.

But this new routine can be journaling, exercise, reading or any other daily practices you require to function at your best. By putting these in place now, you make it less likely they will be swept aside when you have less time for them.

KILL THE PUBLIC SPEAKING NERVES

If you have been avoiding presentations and public speaking, it’s time to stop. I hated public speaking so this year, I volunteered for every group presentation and pitching opportunity and inoculated myself to the nerves and fear of speaking to large audiences.

It’s scary, it makes you sweat and turn red. But, this means if you can get good at it, learn to love and not fear it, you will set yourself apart from everyone else.

FINALLY, ENJOY BEING A STUDENT

Once you’ve done the work, take time to really soak in the last months of being a student. Enjoy and nurture the friendships you’ve made because on the day you graduate, all those friends will become your network.

Being a student is a choice to always learn and seek out mentors. Put aside the applications, essays, and notes for a while and go take advantage of what it means to be a student.