My first encounter with moneyball was in high school. The boy I had a crush on was playing fantasy baseball so I played too. I had four months to teach myself everything about baseball before the draft.
I had no preconceived notions of which players are valuable so I was able to look at the draft dispassionately. I realized that base stealers and relief pitchers had a much higher value in our fantasy game than they did in real life. So I drafted all the highly rated players in those two categories.
Even as my fantasy team was leading week after week, the guys who were knowledgeable about baseball continued to undervalue those two positions. I came in second place that year knowing nothing about baseball except relievers and base stealers.
When I played beach volleyball, I realized that the players were spending all their time on the beach and in the gym. No one was courting sponsors. So I had amazing sponsors during my pro-beach tenure, even though the highest rank I ever got to was 25.
When I was job hunting at the beginning of my career, I saw that no one was filling the Internet jobs. So instead of trying to get a job with my English degree, I made myself an expert in HTML. To do well in your career, you need to be able to jettison a bad decision like graduate school in order to look like a go-getter to employers.
Now I see people doing this with their kids. For example, kids playing baseball have a much better chance of going pro if they can pitch super fast. Kids used to throw a wide range of pitches, but you have the best odds with an obsessive, early focus on speed.
In basketball, there’s an emphasis on kids being stars, so they can be recognized early by scouts. So kids play on lots of different teams, and then don’t have allegiance to any particular team. The effect of this system is that kids don’t learn the unglamorous skills required to win a game. And the UAA system is not training kids to want to win as a team. I saw that with my own son. He was on three basketball teams, but the games he cared most about winning were one-on-one against his brother.
Another example is musicians. Most musicians who have a job as a performer work in an orchestra. But the way to get an orchestra job is to play soloist music really well. So kids who spend the least time playing with an orchestra are best positioned to win orchestra jobs.
And college. Of course you can moneyball college admissions. For example Harvard accepts almost all applicants from Juilliard because Harvard wants people who are the best at something. I noticed that some kids would work like mad to get into Juilliard by the time they are 15. And then they cut way back on practicing so they can get high grades and high test scores in high school. That works. That gets you into a great college.
What about careers? The hardest worker is rarely the most successful in the workplace. Work is a popularity contest; the people who are most well-liked get promoted. This means that teaching kids to be likable is more important than teaching kids to work hard. (Suggested lesson plan: teach your kid to nod their head and eschew status symbols.)
Once I write this list it’s so clear to me why it took losing teams so long to try moneyball. Most teams saw the new way of doing things was winning games, but it was so hard to believe. Each of these examples are similar in that a new way of thinking feels too risky; even when we see the data for what works, it’s hard to bank on it when we had so many years of thinking something else is true.
There’s always a long list of things you have to do to be super successful at something. Commitment, money, time, passion, focus. And now I see it’s bravery as well. You need to figure out an opening where you can fit – some new way of seeing that increases your chances in a crowded field. This is a great skill to teach kids, and if you’re brave enough you’ll teach by setting an example.