Category Archives: Business

Got Tickets?

red-sox-ticket.jpgA ticket to a Red Sox game. There’s nothing quite like holding one in your hands. It’s that sublime feeling of knowing a Fenway Park experience lies in your future. The anticipation is palpable. Regardless of whether the Sox eventually win or lose, with a ticket to a game, you’re guaranteed the thrill of watching Big Papi and Manny stride into the on-deck circle; the roar of the crowd following a spectacular defensive play; the majesty of the Green Monster looming in left field; two choruses of Sweet Caroline and its euphoric chant, “So Good! So Good! So Good!” And for many of us, there’s Fenway’s time-capsule quality that transports us back to our childhoods and reconnects us with our parents, or the spirits of our parents who have passed away, and re-ignites in us the joy of being alive.

And this was all true BEFORE the Red Sox ever won a World Series. Now, when we go to Fenway, we get to see the World Champions!

No wonder it’s so hard to get a ticket. Yes, demand for tickets is through the roof, and the Red Sox continue to price their tickets at levels well below “market value” in order to keep a Fenway Park experience accessible to the “average fan.” In addition, ticket supply is low – we have the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball and 81 home games just isn’t enough to satisfy our fans’ hunger. And as any college professor of economics will tell you, these three forces (along with complete lack of enforcement of scalping laws) make a “secondary market” for tickets inevitable. So that’s what we have in Red Sox Nation: a robust, flourishing, highly profitable ticket-booth-at-fenway.jpgmarket for Red Sox tickets that have already been sold once by the team.

Almost nobody loves the ticket reselling (“scalping”) industry. Yet, as I see it, there are only a handful of ways the Red Sox could combat ticket resellers, and almost all of them seem silly:

1) The Sox could price all seats at fair market value. That would mean a “dutch auction” for every ticket, which would lead to prices of at least $500 per seat for every game. Yes, that includes bleachers and standing room only. This would kill the reselling industry’s interest in Sox tickets because, theoretically, no ticket would be sold initially for an amount less than its highest potential bid.

2) The Red Sox could start to lose more games than they win, which would diminish demand.

3) The Red Sox could tear down Fenway and build a stadium with 100,000 seats. This would probably curtail demand (Fenway is an attraction, regardless of how well the team plays) and also increase ticket supply.

4) The Red Sox could petition Major League Baseball to play all their games at home. If they were successful, this would double the supply of tickets. Likewise, they could petition the league to play 50 home games against the Yankees, to make these tickets less special.

5) The Red Sox could revoke all season ticket holders’ seats. Season ticket holders are currently the biggest supplier of the “secondary market” (after all, who has time to attend every home game?) and putting more tickets back under control of the team would take a huge bite out of resellers’ inventory and would allow the Red Sox to find more “unique” fans to sell them to – fans who would be more likely to actually use the tickets rather than resell them.

6) The state of Massachusetts could enforce the law against reselling tickets at more than $2 of their face value. Which, it appears, will never happen.

Short of these drastic measures, however, there are proactive ways to combat the reselling industry and get tickets into the hands of “regular fans,” and the Red Sox use almost all of them. They:

1) Place strict ticket limits on ticket-buying customers (other than season ticket holders) to ensure a large number of “unique” buyers.ticket-scalper.jpg

2) Hold several “random drawings” before and during the season, which gives lucky fans the right to purchase online highly coveted Green Monster seats, Right Field Roof Deck seats, Yankee Game seats, and even playoff and World Series seats. (I have “won” Red Sox email drawings three times over the years, proving that it really does work.)

3) Host a “scalp-free zone” outside Fenway, which enables fans to sell their tickets at face value on the day of the game. Buyers of these tickets are required to enter Fenway immediately after buying a ticket, to ensure the tickets don’t get resold for a profit.

4) Sell “day of game” tickets at Gate E, beginning two hours before game time.

5) Announce the sale of new blocks of tickets at random times before and during the season.

6) Set technological traps to foil resellers in the online ticket-buying process.

Consider this: By keeping ticket prices well below their actual market value, the Red Sox are effectively offering “financial aid” to every person who buys a ticket directly from them. Absurd, you say? Not really. If the actual value of a particular ticket is $500 on the open market, and the Red Sox know this yet choose to sell this ticket for $80, they are purposefully offering financial aid of $420 to the buyer of that ticket. And they do this for the same reason that Harvard does it, or Andover, or any other expensive educational institution: because they don’t want their customer base to consist solely of wealthy people.

There’s a moral angle here, to be sure, but there’s also a long-term business angle. If the Sox were to maximize their profit now by selling tickets at their actual market value (which would terminate the secondary market for Sox tickets), the economic diversity of their fan base would diminish. Consequently, if the team were to hit hard times in the future (i.e., they begin to lose more games than they win… uncomfortable to imagine, I know), they would have a difficult time selling tickets at the exorbitant prices leftover from the glory days of 2008 and would probably have to slash prices. In addition, attracting back the millions of fans who were disillusioned by their lack of access to games might be a major challenge.

ace-tickets.jpgA few days ago, the Red Sox signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace Ticket and proclaimed them “the official ticket reseller of the Boston Red Sox.” Yes, it’s crummy that ANY team has an “official ticket reseller,” but to put in perspective how established the ticket reselling industry is in 2008, keep in mind that Major League Baseball itself has partnered with StubHub, another ticket reseller, as the official ticket reseller of Major League Baseball. The entire LEAGUE is profiting from the ticket reselling industry — it’s not just the Red Sox.

To the Red Sox’ credit, last year they instituted a program called “Red Sox Replay” that enabled season ticket holders to resell their tickets online at virtually face value (fans could log on and buy tickets at a markup of approximately 25%, a small percentage of which went to the Red Sox for maintenance of the site). But the moment MLB inked their exclusive deal with StubHub, the Sox were forced to tear down Replay, since it competed with StubHub’s interests. As Sam Kennedy, the Sox’ chief Marketing and Sales officer, told The Boston Globe earlier this week, without Replay, the Sox felt compelled “to identify and endorse a secure and reputable secondary market option” for their season ticket holders.

It’s also important to point out that the Red Sox have not provided Ace with “tickets for resale” as part of their deal, and the Sox do not stand to profit from a single ticket that Ace sells. This is a straight advertising deal – the team is simply accepting a large check from Ace Ticket for sponsorship (and, we trust, investing this back into the team on the field), and they have sent a letter to their season ticket holders recommending Ace Ticket as the team’s reseller of choice. That’s it.

ticket-line-at-fenway.jpgNow if Abe Lincoln owned the Red Sox, would he have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? No. What about A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of baseball who was as principled a man as ever lived (he’s the guy who banned Pete Rose from baseball). Would Bart have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? Probably not. Abe and Bart would have eschewed any deal that appeared to link their team with scalpers.

On the other hand, neither of these men were successful businessmen, and neither would ever have been picked to run a major league baseball team. The Red Sox are not only our beloved Olde Towne Team, they are a business. “Good business” helped us win it all in 2004 and 2007, and good business will help us win in the future, as well. It’s hard to fault the business people at the Red Sox for pocketing an easy endorsement check (and offering a “benefit” for season ticket holders) when not doing so would (arguably) jeopardize our competitiveness in the American League East. The money the Sox are making from the Ace Ticket deal will help them put the highest quality team on the field for 2008 and beyond. Yup, winning really does have a steep price.

While down here in Fort Myers, I had a chance to talk about all of this with Ron Bumgarner, Red Sox VP of Ticketing, for about 30 minutes. And what I’ve concluded is that his job is different from that of every other VP of Ticketing at every other MLB franchise. While other teams are busy trying to sell as many tickets as they can at the highest possible prices, the Red Sox are trying to sell all of their tickets at a discount (theoretically) to as many unique, regular fans as is possible, and working assiduously to thwart ticket resellers at the same time (yes, even though they just advised their season ticket holders to sell their unused tickets to Ace, the Sox will continue to try to keep varitek-fan.jpgother individual tickets out of Ace’s and other resellers’ hands). Profit was Ron’s main concern when he ran ticketing for the San Diego Padres, but here at the Red Sox, profit takes a back seat to equitability and wide distribution of tickets across Red Sox Nation’s loyal citizenship.

And you just have to trust me when I tell you that Ron is committed to keeping Fenway accessible to “regular fans.” He has a couple of young children of his own, and I know he relates personally to the “regular fan” whose parents brought him/her to games at Fenway during childhood, and now wants to bring his/her kids to the park, too. “It’s a complicated problem,” Ron told me, “But since it means the Red Sox are winning games, it’s a good problem in the end.” Right?

Advertisements

Roger Clemens: Fascinating Theater, and That’s All

roger-clemens-1984.jpgI remember the first time I ever heard about Roger Clemens. It was the early ’80s, I was around 14 years old, and my dad was sitting at our kitchen table reading the Boston Globe sports section aloud, telling about the excitement surrounding a pitcher the Red Sox had drafted out of the University of Texas. The article said Clemens threw heat and that he had Hall of Fame potential. I still remember how that name sounded the first time I heard roger-clemens-big-guy-at-the-plate.jpgit. It sounded like raw talent. It sounded like an ace of spades. It sounded like hope for a franchise desperate to win a World Series. Today, the sound of Roger Clemens’ name has a different ring to it.

Like everyone out there, I have a gut feeling about whether or not Roger Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs. And my gut feeling has been the same for several years, since long before I ever heard of Brian McNamee. The ridiculous improvement of Clemens’ statistics as he got older (especially after his mid-career demise between 1993-1996) says a lot.

But the current public grilling of Roger Clemens serves only one purpose, really. It’s great theater. Riveting entertainment. Clemens is arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher of all-time (his 7 Cy Young Awards are a record) and we all find it fascinating to watch him fight desperately to save his reputation — and his wife’s — with the same competitiveness and bullheadedness that made him a superstar. Yup, it’s fascinating in an O.J. Simpson kind of way.

clemens-hits-manny.jpgYet I can’t think of one reason why it makes any difference whether we ever learn whether Clemens used something, or not (other than to save the credibility of whichever of the two is telling the truth). We already know that performance-enhancing drugs have been part of the culture of baseball in the sport’s recent history. Every team had users. The outcome of every game over the last ten years was probably affected in some way by steroids or HGH. That’s all that really matters to me as a passionate fan of the game. Baseball needs to be cleaned up. Period.

The objective of the Mitchell Report was not to implicate players, it was to reveal the degree to which performance-enhancing drugs have infiltrated the game and to recommend steps to recover the game’s integrity. So can someone tell me how the conversation has degenerated into this made-for-TV-ratings soap opera that has nothing to do with the Mitchell Report’s original intention?

And why does Congress care so much about whether Clemens or McNamee is telling the truth? I don’t get it. Aren’t there many, many more important things for our elected government officials to be worrying about than whether or not Roger Clemens stuck neroger-clemens-red-sox.jpgedles in his butt? Have these U.S. representatives been sucked into this story for the same reasons we’ve all been sucked in — by a fascination with the potential meteoric downfall of one of the most famous athletes of our time, and by the magnitude of the story? How did that hearing today help the people of the United States of America?

So, either Clemens or McNamee is lying. None of us can help but have an opinion about this debate. But unless you make your living from tabloid journalism or you happen to be closely related to Clemens or McNamee, the issue is really irrelevant. Let’s move on. After all, Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers TOMORROW (Thursday, February 14). Rejoice!

The Meaning of the 2007 Patriots

bruschi-and-vrabel.jpgI don’t buy it.

Everyone says the Patriots’ season became meaningless when they lost the Super Bowl to the Giants. All the wins, all the records, all the great feats of 2007 — up in smoke with one pass to Plaxico Burress.

But you know what? I don’t buy into that. And you don’t have to, either. We live in a society that has decided to shower the “winners” with a ridiculously disproportionate level of praise and credit and to strip all value from every other competitor or team that didn’t reach the mountaintop (where there’s only room for one). I don’t really know why we’ve decided to see things that way, but I, for one, particularly in this specific case, do not buy it.

Yes, the Giants won the Super Bowl. They are the Super Bowl Champions. They are to be commended. They earned it. They deserve it. They and their fans should feel awesome. The Patriots did not win the Super Bowl. But the Patriots of 2007 are still one of the greatest NFL teams of all time. And the 2007 Giants are not.

Now I hear you saying: “You can’t consider a team to be the best ever if they didn’t win the championship – you fool!” But that’s only true if we buy into what pop culture has drilled into us since we were tiny tots crawling on the floor in front of Sunday afternoon football games on TV. We have been taught since we were born that only the winner can feel proud, and that every team or competitor that doesn’t win failed. And by God, if you don’t win the big game, well, you’re just a footnote and nothing more. LOSER!

But do you really believe that about the 2007 Patriots? Isn’t part of thetom-brady.jpg reason that it’s so hard for us to make sense of their Super Bowl loss that there’s a deeper part of us that KNOWS they had a truly remarkable season and that they were still — by far — the best football team in the league this year — and THIS DECADE? And this deeper part of us (I’m talking to you, Pats fans) knows they still deserve a parade in Boston. And this deeper part of us ACHES to go to that parade and to cheer for them for playing so incredibly well this year, for giving us a feeling we’ve literally never had before with any team in Boston — a complete, unassailable belief that we are invincible.

OK, so that feeling of invincibility ended up vanishing with less than a minute left in the Super Bowl, but that feeling was still quite a thrill, quite a gift to all of us in Patriots (and Red Sox) Nation. And even in losing to the Giants, the Patriots played with a level of effort that deserves our admiration. So they lost. Does that mean we abandon them? Is the only reason we loved them that they kept ending up with more points than the other team when the game was over? Was that really the only stinking reason?

No. For me, it was more than that. And maybe I didn’t realize that fact until they lost to the Giants. Their wins were a reflection of their beautiful excellence. And I loved them because of their beautiful excellence. Before this season, I always thought of thewes-welker.jpg 1986 Chicago Bears as the greatest NFL team ever. (They were 18-1 too. But their loss came during the regular season, so we don’t hold it against them.) But if I could pick one team in history to win one game against ANY team, I would pick the 2007 Patriots (with a healthy Tom Brady). And you know all the TV sportscasters WANT to say the same thing (because deep down, they know it’s true), but they are afraid to because they know they’ll get ridiculed (as I will) for praising a team that “lost the big one.” They’ll get ridiculed (as I will) for going against the code of our society that says, “Only the winners of the Super Bowl can hold their heads high.” That’s just hogwash. And declaring it so helps me deal with their loss. It relieves some of the pain. It sustains my appreciation of the Patriots, and that feels good. (Try it!)

So, what’s the meaning of the 2007 Patriots? That you can still be considered one of the greatest teams of all time and LOSE the big game. That no team, no competitor is invincible. (When I yelled at the TV, “Why did you miss that??” as Samuel dropped that potential interception on Manning’s final drive, my 8 year-old son said to me, “Because he’s human, Daddy.”) That you can still be considered a “winner” by fans and by commentators even if you come in second. And that, if you choose to buy in to the “rule” that only one team and one set of fans has the right to feel good at the end of the season — well, that’s a rule that’s going to give you a lot of pain in your life.

randy-moss.jpgYeah, I’m incredibly disappointed that the Patriots lost. Still stunned. A little numb. No doubt, winning is better than losing. But I won’t line up behind the people that want to just forget about them. The 2007 New England Patriots were awesome. And one play with 0:35 seconds left doesn’t eradicate an entire season of jaw-dropping performance. Unless you decide that it does. But I just don’t buy it.

Behind The Scenes at Fenway

yawkey-way-at-game-time.jpgLast week, the Red Sox invited me to visit the team’s offices on Yawkey Way. “Why don’t you come by around noon on Wednesday and sit in on a bunch of meetings?” And so I did. Between noon and 4pm, I attended four meetings:

1. A bi-weekly meeting of the team’s vice presidents and directors (I counted 28 of them), led by team president, Larry Lucchino. Each VP/director gave a brief update on his/her area of responsibility and fielded a question or two from Lucchino. Even yours truly was asked to say a few words. (“I don’t mean to put you on the spot, Rob,” said Larry, “but what’s the state of the Nation?”)

2. A meeting led by senior vice president sales/marketing, Sam Kennedy, to discuss the status of the Red Sox Fellows Program’s recruiting efforts.

3. A meeting led by Sam Kennedy and director of client services, Troup Parkinson, with executives from a company that currently spends about a half-million dollars per year in advertising with the Red Sox. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm ways to reconfigure the deal going forward.

4. A meeting led by manager of community marketing, Mardi Fuller, on “Marketing to Women.”

Rather than give you the blow by blow on these meetings, I thought I’d share with you the most striking take-aways of my afternoon at Fenway:

1. Larry Lucchino has the entire organization under his thumb, and he seems to enjoy being president and getting involved in the details of every aspect of the organization. He ran the VP/directors meeting like an emcee, sprinkling in anecdotes from time to time, quizzing VPs on facts about their area, and handing out praise generously. He is clearly well-liked and highly respected by his charges.

2. Out of the 28 team VP/directors who spoke at that first mfenway-at-sunset.jpgeeting, only two mentioned actual baseball players: Brian O’Halloran, director of baseball operations (he attended in Theo Epstein’s stead), who gave a brief update on minor transactions that had occurred in the last two weeks, and Dick Bresciani, the team’s historian and archivist, who gave a spirited presentation about “this week in Red Sox history.” As a fan, it was striking to see that 95% of the meeting focused on issues that would bore most fans to tears.

3. At lunch, following the VP/directors meeting, I had a chance to talk with Ron Bumgarner, who runs the ticketing operation. “The Yankees and every other pro sports organization laughs at us for the lengths we go to to try to make tickets accessible to regular fans,” he said. And after 20 minutes of hearing about the thought process behind their ticket operations, I believed him.

He confessed that sometimes the lengths to which the Sox go to make things fair have a negative effect on their efforts to make the experience easy. For example, when tickets are available online, some people wait ten minutes to purchase tickets, while others who have waited hours and hours and were “in line” first get nothing. He explained that if the Sox did not pluck folks out of the “virtual waiting room” randomly, the agencies/resellers would chew up all the tickets – because they have the manpower and, more importantly, the programmer power to dominate the “front of the line” and proactively “mole” their computers to butt in the queue. He said that they could sell out Fenway’s 81 games in one day if they wanted to, and that would make their job easy, but they don’t do that because it would not be fair to the “average fans.”

4. I assumed that the Red Sox Fellows Program would cater to the grandchildren of owners and nieces of senior vice presidents, but the meeting on the Fellows Program made it clear to me that the Sox are truly looking for a robust, diverse pool of applicants. Just as the baseball operations people are looking for talented players, the business operations people are looking for talented, capable “fellows” to inject the organization with energy and to develop executives of the future. (For more information on the Red Sox Fellows Program, click here. Applications for the 2008 season are due January 4, 2008.)

5. It was fascinating to me that 80% of the 90 minute-long meeting with the corporate sponsor was spent “developing the relationship” — talking about the 2007 season, catching up on how business is going, talking about mutual friends and acquaintances. Only 20% of the time was spent exploring the future of the company’s business relationship with the Sox, and no actual financial terms of a deal were discussed.

6. The Red Sox have a gigantic “home field advantage” when meeting with potential corporate sponsors at Fenway Park. Sam and Troup probably didn’t notice the awe twinkling in the eyes of the three guest executives (two of whom had flown in from D.C., and one from New York) as they walked down the corridor to the conference room, gazing at the posters and photos of Red Sox greats on the walls. What was perhaps ‘just another meeting’ for Sam and Troup was clearly one of the most exciting business meetings of the year for their guests. When we sat down for the meeting, a snow-covered Fenway Park loomed in the background through the window wall. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you can’t help sprouting goosebumps in that room.

remy-and-orsillo-bobbleheads.jpg7. One question that was raised at the “Marketing to Women” meeting was, “With every game sold out and TV ratings high, and with a broader female fan base than any other major league baseball team, why should the Red Sox care about appealing to women more than they already do?” The two big answers were: Because an organization that appeals to women as well as men will thrive even when the team isn’t winning, and because women represent half of the potential customer base/audience.

Other interesting points raised included: a) Women (and men) spend more time directly experiencing the Red Sox through NESN (and their team of Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo, and Tina Cervasio) than through personal trips to Fenway Park. Therefore, any marketing efforts targeting women need to examine the effectiveness of this channel. b) Men (whom are the default targets of existing Red Sox marketing efforts) have young daughters they want to bring to Fenway Park; they have girlfriends and wives who sometimes accompany them when they attend a game or watch on TV; and certainly “baseball” can compete with all these women for “quality time” in the life of a male fan. Therefore, the more broadly the team appeals to women, the more broadly it will appeal to its default audience of men, as well.cubicles.jpg

8. In the end, the Red Sox offices are still offices where people go to work every day (most are crammed into small cubicles), and the nature of their work is not unlike the work done in other organizations: finance, marketing, customer relations, sales, advertising, public relations, etc. While all Red Sox employees have highly coveted jobs, they don’t walk around exuding excitement and gratitude for their good luck; in fact, I’d say they all looked pretty worn out after a long, strenuous 2007. (I assume the office atmosphere is slightly different in May, during a Yankees homestand, the day after an Ortiz walk-off home run…)

I want to thank the Red Sox organization for welcoming me into their offices for a few hours. Their hospitality rates a ten out of ten, and I appreciate their high hopes for the new roles of President and Vice President of Red Sox Nation.

Never Say “I Could Have Done That”

Creative ideas.

Images of a different, better future.

We all have five or ten compelling ones every day. Sometimes they hit us in the shower. Sometimes while we’re driving. Sometimes when we’re sitting in a meeting oMJ on the Baronsr while talking with a friend. Sometimes they wake us up at 3 in the morning.

And I bet at least one idea we have per day is one that, if acted on, could make a quantum, dramatic difference in our lives or the lives of others. It’s one that could help define our lives and our purpose on this planet if we could execute it. If only these gem-like ideas could be highlighted for us, and we could be guided by a higher power to follow-through on them immediately….

Frequently, I see the work someone else has done – the book or song they wrote that I know I could have created as well, the product they invented that I had the concept for a few years ago, the eye-opening presentation they gave at the conference, the physical condition they’ve gotten themselves into and the accomplishments they’ve achieved because of this – and my impulse is to say, “Well, I had could have done that, too.”

But I didn’t, and that is all that really matters. I may have had the idea. I may have had the ability. I may have had the desire and even the intention. But all the credit goes to the one who takes the idea and, at the very least, strives to forge it into a real thing, a real accomplishment, a real victory, a real process, a real piece of art, a real conversation, a real relationship, a real habit, a real action.

The line between “having an idea” and “executing an idea” is thin – and yet the difference in value between the two is infinite. An idea or goal that stays in your head is as good as an idea or goal that never existed.

I love the example of Michael Jordan’s short baseball career for two reasons:

1. Michael says he always dreamed of being a major league baseball player and believed he could compete at the highest levels in that sport. Most of us forget that he retired from the NBA as reigning MVP in order to follow through on this dream and start a new career in baseball. Is there a better example of never saying, ‘I could have done that?’ That was one of the most inspiring career leaps I’ve ever seen.

2. M.J. never made it to the majors, but you won’t hear Michael say, “I could have done that,” while watching David Ortiz or Ichiro Suzuki hit a 97-mph tailing fastball for a game-winning hit. He tested out his idea and learned that baseball was much harder than he imagined. But, at least with regard to this single idea, Michael can sleep at night knowing he didn’t let it die in his head.

Then there’s my sister-in-law, Christina Harding. She heard about the Antarctica Marathon a couple of years ago and said to herself, “I never want to just say, ‘I could have done that.’ Therefore, I must do it.” Last week, she competed in the Antarctica Marathon. Like Michael Jordan, she can now say, “I followed through on my idea.” Unlike Michael Jordan, Christina can also say, “And I reached the pinnacle.” Because she won, defeating all other female entrants in the race and passing two competitors in the race’s final two miles of glacier-covered terrain. Incredible.

I have learned to never say, ‘I could have done that.’ Because I didn’t.

The Origins of Expertise

boy practicing tennisWe can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?

An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:

“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.

It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:

“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”

Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.

Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)

In Pursuit Of The Zone

“When am I in the zone, and how will I double the time I spend in the zone in the next 12 months?”

Entrepreneur and author Raj Setty has been publishing “Quoughts of the Day” on his blog since late December, 2006. (A “quought” is a question that provokes thought.) Back on January 13, I wrote about Raj’s excellent “quoughts” series and suggested three quoughts of my own. Since then, Raj and I have become acquainted via email, and today he has published my quought at LifeBeyondCodeBlog.

I’m a big fan of “being in the zone.” I believe we all do our best work when we’re in the zone. Almost all really, really great work is produced by people in the zone. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Teachers. Writers. Doctors. Salespeople. Musicians. Architects. Chefs. Gardeners. Artists. Preachers. Mothers. Fathers. Students. CEOs. Auto Mechanics. The elite ones get “locked-in” when they’re practicing their craft.

I believe we need to spend at least a few hours every day in the zone, or we’re depriving the world (and ourselves) of our most valuable stuff. I worry about people I love who don’t appear to spend any time in the zone during the day.

Christian LaettnerWhen in your lifetime, including when you were a kid, do you remember being in the zone? (If you’re Christian Laettner (left), you remember being in the zone on the night you took this shot, with 0.2 seconds left, after catching an 80-foot pass from Grant Hill, to win the 1992 East Regional NCAA Tournament game in overtime against Kentucky, 103-102. Laettner was 10 for 10 from the floor, and 10 for 10 on free throws in this game. That’s some serious zoneage. The story of this game is here.)

Can you pepper your schedule next week – and for the rest of your life – with more “zone-time?”

“Work is my obsession but it is also my devotion…. Absorbedness is the paradise of work.” — Donald Hall, poet and essayist