I had the opportunity to spend time with Pete Carroll at one point in my life. For those who don’t know, Carroll is one of the winningest college football coaches in the history of the game. He led the USC Trojans to a 34-game win streak and two national titles and took on the aura of a John Wooden or Knute Rockne–the coach who could do no wrong and who always had his focus in the right place, with quotes about teamwork or cooperation or… longevity–galore.
One of my favorite quotes of Caroll’s goes something like
Success is not measured by whether or not you make it to the top but on how long you stay there.
For all my Israelis out there, all I can say to that is… psssssh. Deep stuff.
Our Caroll epic takes an opening-scene-of-Magnolia twist when we discover that for all of Caroll’s wise words and championship titles and record-breaking streaks, his legacy was completely and utterly destroyed when it was discovered that he was involved in improper gifting to players on his team. In a first in the history of college football, USC’s national title earned under Carroll was retroactively taken away and the school’s national championship trophy returned.
When I met Carroll, he was both riding high and an amazing, living story of success and longevity. Only 2 years later, it all went buh-bye.
I was extremely inspired by Carroll’s story then and I am even more inspired–in a fear of God sort of way–by the turn that the story took.
It is so tempting to walk the slightly easier path or to do what everyone else is doing–improper gifting to top college stars was a common practice and could determine whether or not success would be achieved in the first place. At the risk of sounding overly Purtianical, the devil is always afoot, waiting for the little lapse of moral judgment or that wish to just make the hard, lonely path a little bit easier. Things may even go well for a very long time. But the center shant hold.
In Which I Come Out of the Closet
I have my own story in this regard. In high school, I was on the math team. We were a strong team and went to the state competition roaring to go. It was a six-round competition and I was doing very well and found myself with one of the top scores in the state. In the fifth round, there was this one problem that I could just not figure out and seconds before the round ended, I happened to glance at my friend Teri Krebs’ paper and saw her answer and just thought “oh well” and wrote it down. I ultimately was one of the top scorers in the state and the fact that I got that problem “correct” was what put me over the top.
No one ever found out. My legacy was secured. But I always knew. And deep down, that title is just another cautionary tale for me. Victory is hollow when the means of achieving it are not honorable. I mean, what is victory anyway deep down other than the objective proof of the successful result of a lot of hard work. It is a way of showing yourself that you are capable of doing something that pushed your limits and forced you to work harder and become more than you were. When you cheat, make compromises, or take the easy way, you miss the point of the entire game, whatever the game may be.
Thinking long term
When I was 23, I was a dancer living in Los Angeles. My friends began auditioning for TV shows and music videos. I was encouraged to come along. On the day of a big audition, I felt nauseous and said I wasn’t going to go. People looked at me like I was chickening out. It was not the greatest feeling. But somewhere deep down, I knew that this was not the path for me. This was not why I had become a dancer. This is not why I had come to LA. In fact, I had no idea why I had become a dancer or had come to LA. I only knew for sure that it was not that.
I look on now as those friends who encouraged me are respectively on TV shows, Broadway, and starring in dance movies (Step Up) while I am still just some guy with some weird street performing dream that may or may not ever come together. It has not been the easiest path to watch others achieve such tangible outward success while mine has been comparatively limited.
When I reconnect with these friends, which I do occasionally, it always strikes me though that in reality, the compromises that they are required to make and have agreed to–dealing with bad choreographers or sheisty producers–hasn’t actually made them happy. Everyone is always commenting on how happy I am. And to me, therein lies the rub.
The Formless Path
Even friends from previous lives, before I became a dancer, are having their own external success. PhD’s from the London School of Economics, professors at hoity-toity liberal arts colleges, well paid engineers. And yet people are always commenting on how happy I seem.
When I tell them why, regaling them with tales of aliens and belief systems and venturing into the unknown whilst following your highest excitement–most agree on only one thing; that I have gone crazy.
And yet from my view, I am walking the formless path. I don’t get the accolades or the status. I can’t know for sure if I ever will (but lord knows I want it!). But if the path ain’t worth walking, why you gonna walk it at all.. That’s what I learned from Pete Carroll. It isn’t about whether you get to the top, it’s about how rad was your journey. How much yourself were you? How much could they say sheesh… people like that don’t come around very often?
What I’m Banking On
And I think that much in the same way that the fastest path from A to Z is not through B and C and D but instead by creating a rift in the fabric of space-time and wormholing to your destination, that the formless path does add up. Those daily routines, that hard work, that patience and determination do ultimately come together into something resembling a recognizable form, something so uniquely you and so refined that the world can’t help but notice.
It just takes a lot of time. But if the path is rad, how bad can that be?
Making it really, really big
He notes that his firm has generated about $10 billion in valuation at this point, but that more than 75% of that success has been generated by just 2 companies–Dropbox and Airbnb. From an investing perspective, every other successful company he has funded, of which there are now hundreds, are simply a statstical samplng error, a blip on the radar that doesn’t really matter in terms of his bottom line.
As an investor, someone looking to generate return on investment, he is perplexed by this fact. It means that the way he has gone about doing things is wrong. When he listens to pitches and decides on whether to invest in someone, he should not be looking at who he thinks will be successful. Successful doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters for his firm–based on his own years of data–are huge, off the charts successes. Unprecedented game-changing companies. And he has found that these are often not started by people who seem like they will be successful. They are started by outliers with ideas that seem bad.
My feeling is that the same could be said about following your excitement. If you really do it, if you really take it to its logical conclusion, it is likely to take you in a direction that seems crazy to others. It is not interested in success but in creating something brand new, totally new, something beyond which the world has seen before. Another way to look at this is that it is attempting to make you the most you that you could possibly be.
And these are the people, the Gandhis, Beethovens, Picassos, Mozarts, Kings, Fords, Lennons and Jobs–who really shake the shit up.
In the case of Steve Jobs, his unwavering alliance to his own vision caused him to revolutionize computers, get fired from the company he started, buy Pixar, start a new company Next that then got bought by his old company, and then take his original company from the verge of bankruptcy to the largest corporation on Earth. There were so many times he was looked at as crazy, unreasonable, and out of touch with reality. He probably was all of these things. But one thing he was never looked at as was swaying from his vision. He was in it for the long haul and even created a design for a new campus and an in-house university before his death to teach his method of thinking, to keep his perspective imbued in the fabric of the company after he was gone. He attempted to create an organization which would outlive him. This was a man focused on longevity.
His last words were “Oh wow! Oh wow!” And that eternal journey chugged right along.