I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of long ball recently as I’ve been listening to a biography of George Washington on Audible.
I was talking with another friend in Saigon about Washington last weekend and he mentioned Washington’s character in the John Adam’s HBO series as not coming across as that intelligent or intellectual. Having (almost) finished the biography, I would say that’s right.
Washington wasn’t that intelligent. Compared to the intellectual giants of the Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton), he wasn’t even on the same level.
Washington wasn’t terrible well-read and when he did read, it seems like he spent most of his time reading about agriculture or surveying.
Beyond not being terribly intelligent, he also wasn’t really very good at anything he did. I kept listening to the biography waiting for the turning points in his career as a general, planter or president and they never came.
As a Virginia planter, he was perpetually in debt and scraping to get by.
For as well regarded as he was as a general and a president, he didn’t really do anything in either of those roles that was terribly impressive either.
As a general, his surprise on attack on the British when he crossed the Delaware was the only significant victory that he can be credited with and that did more to raise moral than actually turn anything militarily to America’s advantage.
Yorktown, the battle that effectively ended the war, can’t really be credited to him. The French fleet made the siege possible and Washington didn’t know anything about sieges and so the French General – Rochambeau – basically ran the whole show
As president, it seems that he effectively let his cabinet (mainly Hamilton and Jefferson) run the show. While a lot of the way he behaved as president set highly-influental precedents, they weren’t impressive in any intellectual sense.
Yet, in the American and I would say even world memory, Washington is seen as a giant. He’s revered.
I was trying to figure out why this was and I keep coming back to what Dan said when he was talking about the biography. You couldn’t out longball Washington.He was so genuinely committed to his principles. He trusted in them and believed that committing to them would serve him out in the long run.
To a significant extent, luck played a role in this. Washington caught a lot of breaks early in life that gave him the economic position to be able to play long ball.
But I think the main thing is that he just took the attitude that he wouldn’t be out longballed.
He became president in large part due to his unassailable commitment to his principles.
There’s a story in the biography of King George asking American-born painter Benjamin West whether Washington would choose to be at the head of the state or the military now that he had won the war.
“Oh,” said West, “they say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
And he was.
His integrity over long periods of time grinded down at everyone’s suspicion. He earned their trust. He had the trust of a nation. And that proved more valuable than the intellectual dominance of even a Franklin or Jefferson.
He gained it because he never thought short term. When he made decision, he thought about 2nd and 3rd order consequences.
In fact, I’m not even sure the really thought about it all. He just stuck to his principles and trusted that they would bear themselves out.
That’s so hard to do. And I’m not even sure it was a smart thing to do in Washington’s case. I suspect there’s a lot of survivor’s bias. We see Washington and think that it is the right thing to do.
But there’s a lot of people that have stuck to their principles and gotten screwed by the powers that be.
There’s a relevant comparison that Gladwell makes in Outliers.
He compares Robert Oppenheimer with that guy with Christopher Langan who has an equally ridiculously high IQ but lives alone on a farm in Montana.
Oppenheimer achieved renown where Langan never has because he had the social intelligence to combine with his intellectual abilities to work the system to his advantage. In that case, principles didn’t really play out.
So is it valuable to take this mindset? To refused to be out-longballed? To be that principle driven? Or is it just being nieve?
I’ve been listening to Mitch Joel’s Six Pixels of Separation a lot recently. He did an interview a few weeks ago with Peppers and Rogers about trust. They talked about the increasing value of trust. As transparency in the market place and in our personal lives increases, trust is harder to gain and even harder to maintain. It’s becoming scarcer and, consequently, more valuable.
It seems that the current construct of society encourages short term thinking even as the value of long term, long ball, principle based decision making becomes more valuable.
And valuable not just in the moralistic sense, but even in the purely economic sense.
Trust has more and more value. And, on a long enough timeline, value can always be converted into wealth.
So, I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. How can I out long ball you?
I was thinking back about significant things that I’ve accomplished in my life. And I realized that the common thread among all of them was consistency. In everything significant I’ve accomplished, I’ve just out-showed up other people.
I ended up playing football in college despite not being a terribly good athlete. (It was at a small D3 school in Alabama and we weren’t any good the two years that I played so that’s much less impressive than it sounds.)
However, there were probably 30 guys on my high school football team that were better natural athletes than me and only a couple of them ended up playing anywhere after high school.
I just out-showed them up. You have a two week beach vacation before two a days? I’m in the weight room. You’re 30 minutes late to practice everyday to go to study hall? I’m there early. I did my homework during lunch.
At least for me, consistency, just showing up over and over is a huge part of playing long ball.
Playing long ball feels scary though (probably why it’s potentially so valuable). It’s much easier to think in shorter time frames. The benefits are more obvious. You can see the reward. It’s a lot harder to think in 20 year time frames than 6 month time frames.
It’s harder to make sacrifices today when you’re just going on faith and trust that those sacrifices have exponential returns on a 20 year timeline.
In part I suspect I’m attracted to long ball because I don’t have the social intelligence to out-clever people people in the short term. I don’t bother playing that game because I already know that I’ll lose.
But, long ball? I think I have a shot at that one.
Is it worth it? I think so. But honestly, I’m not sure. I’ll get back to you in a couple decades.