Working Smarter and Focusing on Fundamentals: Lessons from Tom Brady

From yesterday’s profile of Tom Brady on ESPN.com:

“There’s nobody like this guy in the league,” [Rex] Ryan once said of [Peyton] Manning. “Nobody studies like him. I know Brady thinks he does. I think there’s probably a little more help with [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning.”

Told another time by reporters that Brady attended a Broadway show instead of watching the Jets-Colts playoff game that would determine New England’s next opponent, Ryan quipped, “Peyton Manning would have been watching our game.”

What Ryan and others have never seemed to grasp, one of Brady’s former teammates explains, is that Brady has always been smart enough to accept that it’s impossible to know everything. That’s why he’s the best postseason quarterback of all time. (Brady holds the record for most playoff wins, yards and touchdowns.) That’s why he obsesses over the simple fundamentals of playing catch, drilling for hours and hours in the offseason with guys like Edelman and former teammate Wes Welker on stuff as basic as ball position and splits. A player can study film and look at 10,000 formations on an iPad for as many hours as the eyes and the brain will allow. But ultimately, the human mind is not a computer. Overthinking in tense moments, trying to decode a defense like it’s a sudoku puzzle, is the perfect recipe for hesitation and panic.

“You know, Brady probably doesn’t watch as much film as Manning, and that’s OK,” said Brady’s former teammate. “You know why? Because he’s got coaches that are watching just as much film as [Manning] is. What Brady gets is that he’s the only guy who understands exactly what’s going on down on the field. So when Josh McDaniels calls a certain play, Brady is thinking: ‘I know exactly why he called that play. I know exactly what my read is on this.’ Brady’s genius is that he understands delegation. He trusts the people around him.”

365 Photo Project: Two Months Update

Another month down! I knew February would be a challenging month for my photo-a-day project. In January, I had lots of activities scheduled, and I saw lots of people. In February, I knew I’d be in my office and at home a lot, which meant fewer organic picture-taking opportunities.

A few weeks ago, I was updating Alison Lin, a colleague and fellow photography enthusiast, about my difficulties with the project. She nodded and said, “You’re exercising your muscles around letting go of perfection.” I found that articulation super helpful. As much as I had been talking about practice, I had been putting a tremendous amount of unrealistic pressure on myself to achieve a certain standard.

That pressure was counter-productive. As my friend, Sarah, told me recently, these kinds of projects are valuable because of the structure they provide. Some days, you’re not going to take good pictures, but what matters is that you’re doing it every day. Furthermore, every photo is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been consciously trying to shift my attitude ever since.

After I spoke with Alison, I found myself sitting in my coffee shop, having taken zero photos that day, wondering what I should photograph, and thinking about her words. I started going through my feed reader, and ran across a blog post that my friend, Amy Wu, had just published. To my surprise and pleasure, she had used one of my pictures. I didn’t have my camera on me, so I used my phone to capture the moment.

The resulting picture wasn’t very good, but choosing and posting it made me realize some simple things I could have done to have improved it. It also let me tell a story of something nice that had happened that day. Most importantly, it’s lowered the stress of the project ever since.

I’m not as worried about posting great pictures every day. That was never the point. Stay focused on my goal (storytelling), do my best, take a picture and post it everyday, and learn something in the process. No one’s grading me on this project. I’m not practicing to become a professional. No one is going to think any less of me if I post a mediocre picture. This is not that hard… if I maintain the right attitude.

I had to send my camera in for some minor repairs this month, and because of some misunderstandings, I ended up going half the month without it. My friend, Justin, loaned me his Fuji X-T1 (arguably a better camera than my beloved Olympus OM-D E-M5) and two tremendous lenses, including a wider lens (equivalent to 21mm on a full-frame) than any that I own.

I had some discomfort with using a foreign tool, but I tried to maintain a positive attitude by using it as an opportunity to experiment with some capabilities that I didn’t have with my usual camera. Specifically, I tried to leverage the bigger sensor for more night shots and the wider lens. Taking wide shots for storytelling is definitely a weakness, and it’s something I want to continue practicing.

I didn’t see as many people I knew this past month, and the numbers reflected that (11 photos with people I knew versus 22 in January). I’ve had a few friends tell me very clearly that they wanted to make it into the project, which I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure they’ll make it in eventually.

I had one particularly hard day when I worked a ton, I hadn’t taken any pictures, and I was exhausted. I was going to just take a picture of the beer I was drinking as I was mindlessly watching Netflix. But my sister encouraged me to get out of the house, so I decided to head up to the nearby Legion of Honor to play with some long-exposure night shots. It was foggy that night, and I thought I would get some cool effects, but the fog disappeared by the time I arrived. I decided to play with putting myself in the shot.

I had a super fun time that evening. I never would have gotten out of the house if I weren’t working on this project.

Here are a few other shots from February that I liked:

Super Bowl Collaboration Lessons: Data, Preparation, and Accountability

The New England Patriots won its fourth Super Bowl last night, beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in a thrilling contest and a crazy finish. I normally root against all Boston sports teams, but I made an exception this year, because Tom Brady is of my generation, and I can’t be mad when an old guy wins.

(If you’re not interested in football, skip ahead to my takeaways.)

For those of you who didn’t see the game, the ending was exciting and… surprising. New England was up by four points with about two minutes left, when Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, threw a long pass to unheralded receiver Jermaine Kearse. The Patriots undrafted, rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made an unbelievable play on the ball that should have effectively ended the game.

Except that miraculously, the ball hit Kearse’s leg as he was falling on the ground, and Kearse somehow managed to catch the ball on his back. The Seahawks had a first down five yards away from the end zone, and, with the best power running back in the game, Marshawn Lynch, they seemed destined to steal this game from the Patriots. Sure enough, Lynch got the ball on the next play and rumbled his way to the one-yard line with a minute to spare.

To understand what happened next, you have to understand how clock management works in the NFL. The Seahawks had one minute and three chances to move the ball one yard and win the game. The clock would run down continuously unless one of two things happened: the Seahawks threw an incomplete pass or one of the teams called a timeout. (Technically, they could also stop the clock by running out of bounds, but that was unlikely scenario given their field position.) The Seahawks only had one timeout remaining, meaning that they could stop the clock with it once. The only other way it could stop the clock was to throw an incomplete pass.

At the same time, the Patriots had a very hard decision to make. If the Seahawks scored, then the Patriots would need enough time to score as well. With a minute left, they had a chance. Any less, and they were as good as done.

To summarize, the Seahawks top priority was to score. It’s second priority was to do so with as little time as possible left on the clock, so that the Patriots didn’t have a chance to answer. The Patriots either had to try to stop the Seahawks from scoring, or — if they believed that the odds of that happening were unlikely — they needed to let the Seahawks score as quickly as possible, so that they had a chance to answer.

That was the complicated version of the situation, at least. The joy of football is that it is both wildly complex and brutally simple. The simple version of the situation was this: One yard, three chances. Give ball to big, strong man known affectionately as “Beast mode.” Watch him rumble into end zone. Celebrate victory.

That was the version that most people — myself included — saw, so when the Seahawks decided to try to pass the ball, most everybody was shocked. The reason you don’t pass in that situation is that you risk throwing an interception. That’s exactly what happened. Malcolm Butler, the unlucky victim of Kearse’s lucky catch two plays before, anticipated the play, intercepted the ball, and preserved the Patriots victory.

The media — both regular and social — predictably erupted. How could they throw the ball on that play?!

(Okay, takeaways start here.)

I took three things away from watching the game and that play in particular.

First, I had assumed — like most of America — that Pete Carroll, Seattle’s head coach, had made a bungling error. But when he explained his reasoning afterward, there seemed to be at least an ounce of good sense behind his call.

With about 30 seconds remaining, in the worst case scenario, Carroll needed to stop the clock at least twice to give his team three chances to score. They only had one timeout. So, they would try a pass play first. If they scored, then they would very likely win the game, because the Patriots would not have enough time to score. If they threw an incomplete pass, the clock would stop, and the Seahawks would have two more chances to try to score, both times likely on the ground.

Still, it seemed like a net bad decision. It still seemed like handing the ball off the Lynch was a lower risk move with a higher probability of success in that situation.

It turns out that when you look at the actual numbers, it’s not clear that this is the case. (Hat tip to Bob Blakley for the pointer to the article.) In fact, the data suggests that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichik, made the more egregious error in not calling a timeout and stopping the clock. It may have even behooved him to let the Seahawks score, a strategy he employed in the Super Bowl four years earlier. Or, maybe by not calling timeout, Belichik was demonstrating a mastery of game theory.

The bottom line is that the actual data did not support most people’s intuitions. Both coaches — two of the best in the game — had clearly done their homework, regardless of whether or not their decisions were right or wrong.

Second, regardless of whether or not the decision was good or bad, I loved how multiple people on the Seahawks — Carroll, Wilson, and offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell — insisted that they were solely responsible for the decision. There was no finger pointing, just a lot of leaders holding themselves accountable. Clearly, there is a very healthy team dynamic on the Seahawks.

Third, I loved Malcolm Butler’s post-game interview, not just for the raw emotion he displayed, but for what he actually said. He made an unbelievable play, which he attributed to his preparation. He recognized the formation from his film study, and he executed. All too often, we see remarkable plays like Butler’s, and we attribute it to incredible athleticism or talent, when in reality, practice and preparation are responsible.

365 Photos Project: One Month Update

I managed to make it through 31 days of my 365-day photo project. There were a few days when I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off, including one where I took a picture of my clock at 11:54pm.

The worst was when I took some pictures that I thought would be good, but that came out blurry, missed a few that I really regretted, and ended up posting an artful-ish shot of a bunch of hot sauce bottles from the restaurant where I ate dinner. I felt really deflated that night, as the hot sauce photo seemed to pale in comparison to all of the great things that had happened that day and that I failed to photograph successfully. I thought seriously about giving up.

I’m glad I didn’t. The photo ended up stirring lots of discussion with and support from friends and colleagues on Facebook, which reminded of why I’m doing this project in the first place and which really helped me reset my perspective and attitude. In particular, it sparked an exchange with my friend, Nancy White. (More on this below.)

I’m doing this to practice my photography and storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll get through the whole year, but I’m proud and amazed that I got through 31 days. I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time on the project, but I also haven’t been mailing it in either. I’ve been good about carrying my camera with me, and on days when I have nothing (four in January), I’ve been creative in making photographs. Almost a third of my photos (nine) were taken inside either my apartment or my parents’ house, so I’ve been forced to be creative often.

I love the resulting journal of my life — it evokes happy memories, and it reminds me of the full month that I’ve had and all the people with whom I spent quality time. (23 friends and colleagues made it into last month’s set!) I’m also loving the conversation the project is generating among my friends and colleagues, both on social media and in real life. Shockingly, people find my pictures more interesting than my ramblings on high-performance collaboration. The project is also eliciting a lot of wonderful personal stories from others, further validating the power of pictures.

I don’t think I’ve taken a single great picture this month, but the tracking is helping me recognize what I’m doing well and what I still need to work on. I am much more conscious of light and composition than I was two years ago. I shot two pictures with flash (once on-camera and once off), and I manipulated the external light in two shots, including the aforementioned clock shot.

I’m proudest of my shot of Elena Salazar above. Elena had these great arm tattoos, including one that said, “California,” and another that said, “Family.” Given the nature of the gathering, I asked her if I could take a picture of her with the latter. I chose the background thoughtfully, taking into account the bright colors and also the kids painted on the wall. I chose a wide enough aperture to blur out the background, but also clearly see her tattoo (although I probably could have stopped down the aperture a little more), and I focused on her eyes. I paid a lot of attention to crafting that shot, leveraging skills and instincts that have evolved over the past year.

In general, I’m finding myself more mindful of moments. It’s also been a great impetus for me to get out of the house. But more than anything, it’s reminded me of the importance of practice, of having a learning mindset, of letting go of judgment, and of focusing on craft and process. It’s strange and humbling to have to be reminded of this, given that it’s such a focus of my work, but it’s making me better at everything I do.

Up until our recent exchange, I don’t think Nancy knew how much her own efforts were inspiring me to keep at it. She has a great attitude about everything she does, and this project has been no exception. I watched her plugging away consistently, even though she was traveling halfway across the world for work and using her cell phone and a cracked tablet. It motivated me to suck it up and keep capturing and posting.

Learning in public can feel incredibly vulnerable, but Nancy has never been shy about it, and the rest of us get to benefit from that in everything she does. Earlier today, she posted these wonderful reflections about her project, including some excerpts from our exchange. I particularly loved her learning recap around attention, identity, and practice.

But forget about her process. Her personality and her values shine through from her photos. I see color and whimsy as well as her love of food and art and the outdoors. I see that she’s been working a lot, but I’m also glad to see that she’s walking with friends and in nature. Her pictures of the water in the fog are moody, surreal, and calming, and they make me want to be in the northwest right now.

I love what I’ve been learning from this process so far, and I loved how it’s unexpectedly brought me closer to my community. Let’s see if I can make it through February!

Ten Days Into my 365 Photos Project

Toward the end of last year, I started contemplating doing a photo-a-day project. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Take a photo a day, and publish it, preferably on the same day. I pretty much decided that I already had too many commitments in 2015 and that I wanted to cut back, but I just couldn’t bear to scrap the idea entirely.

Then, on New Year’s Day, I woke up, and saw this nice light pattern on my wall, which I caught on camera. Then I decided, “Screw it. I’m going to post this as Day 1, and see how far I get. If I end up giving up, no harm done.”

So I posted it. Ten days later, I’m still doing it. (You can follow my project on Flickr.) I felt ready to give up on both Day 2 and Day 3, but I didn’t. Instead, I got clearer about what I was trying to accomplish, and why.

I decided that my main goals were to document my life and to practice. If I had to choose between posting a mediocre photo that told a more accurate story of my day versus a gorgeous photo that was largely irrelevant, I would go with the mediocre photo.

This immediately raised several problems, the main one being that I don’t lead a very glamorous life. I’m usually indoors in front of my computer or in a meeting. I decided to take this on as a challenge. It would force me to exercise my storytelling muscles in a more creative way. At worst, it would encourage me to get out more — a very nice side effect.

Another problem was that I didn’t always have a camera with me. This was surprising, given that I feel like I’m always carrying my camera around these days. But within the first few days of the New Year, I found myself missing out on what I thought were good opportunities. I have a smartphone, but I don’t like its camera. Yeah, yeah, I know that the best camera is the one you have on you, but I was having trouble getting over this.

By Day 7, I had to confront this problem head on. I knew I was going to have court-side access during the pre-game warmup at the Warriors game, so I brought my camera and long lens, expecting to take some cool pictures of the players. But the arena wouldn’t let me bring my camera in, because the lens was too big.

I was disgruntled, but I knew I had to get a picture, so I got this one of my friends with my phone. And I love it. It’s technically unremarkable, but it means something to me personally. Maybe I would have taken a better one of the same subject with my good camera and lens, but maybe not. Constraints are good.

The last problem was that I had to get over myself. This could take an enormous amount of time if I let it. I’m not a professional photographer, and I’m not trying to be. I want to get better, but I have a bunch of other things going on in my life. I need to be okay with improving at a realistic pace.

When I started taking photography more seriously, I started getting more self-critical. This improved my photographic eye, but it also prevented me from putting myself out there as much. One of the reasons for my improvement these past two years is that I simply share less. That’s legitimate — curation is a huge part of photography — but I could probably improve even faster by putting myself out there more, even if that means exposing inferior work.

Furthermore, taking good photos requires a lot more concentration. Sometimes, I find myself giving up on taking pictures entirely, because I just want to focus on whatever it is that I’m doing, and I know that any photos I end up taking will be mediocre as a result. If you look at my meeting pictures over the past two years, you can gauge the level of my involvement in the meeting based on the quality of the pictures. When I was facilitating, the pictures ended up being mediocre (or sometimes nonexistent), because I was devoting 100 percent of my concentration to my job at hand.

I’m trying to manage my standards and just publish something once a day, focusing on the benefits of practice rather than worrying about my self-critic. I’m enjoying it! I’ve already started to notice key opportunities for improvement, and I’m looking forward to being able to see that improvement over time rather than worrying about not being there yet.

Most of all, I love having a journal of my life. I was never able to keep a daily written journal, even when constraining myself to bullet points. But a picture journal seems easier and a lot more gratifying, and it’s amazing how a single picture can trigger a lot of memories.

It’s also an incredible way to recognize life patterns. This past week, you can see that I was around lots of people, which was great, but not typical. Next week will be similar, but the week after, I’ll start bearing down. I’m curious to see what new patterns emerge and how this feedback mechanism changes my behavior (hopefully for the better).