Calcio is life

Every so often, David Brooks can be insightful. This sports analogy may help put things in perspective for people who often find themselves frustrated that life does not go the way they expect it to:

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize….

Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify.

Everyone knows connections and networks and friends and family are more important to success than raw ability and hard work. And yet, that recognition offends most of us. It seems unfair somehow. But why? We see examples in every aspect of human endeavor. Even Michael Jordan didn’t become a champion by scoring 63 points a game, he achieved more when he scored 30 and relied on Scottie Pippen and his other teammates to help him win the game.

The coach of my Nike team once asked me how it was that I scored a goal in every game that season, regardless of whether the team we played against was good or bad, whereas my more talented strike partner would tend to score three goals against the bad teams and get regularly shut out by the good ones. I pointed out that the other striker’s goals were almost always brilliant individual efforts that involved beating two or three defenders on the dribble. Mine were almost always one- or two-touch shots that relied upon getting a well-placed pass from a midfielder, often my younger brother.

And while the other striker was a gifted player from Ireland who could dribble right past two or three lesser defenders, he wasn’t gifted enough to beat two or three good ones in succession. For me, on the other hand, it made little difference if the defenders were good or bad, because as long as the midfielder passed the ball into the open space past the last defender, I was going to run right past them. When the defense was tough, a little teamwork reliably trumped considerably superior individual talent.

The lesson of soccer is that individual effort will often suffice when things are relatively easy. But in order to surmount the more difficult challenges, you will almost always need reliable teammates of one sort or another.