Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.
These days I’m a little obsessed with Moneyball, the book and the film. Michael Lewis’s story of the transformation of the Oakland A’s through data-driven decision-making and a commitment to rethinking the game even in the face of resistance from old-school scouts isn’t inspiring in the way we think of come-from-behind, underdog sports stories. The film nudges up against this trope a bit — Brad Pitt driving broodingly through a depressed Oakland that clearly needs a lift from the hometown team, scenes of late-inning home runs soaring through a night sky, fist pumps and embraces on the field — but it also captures the tension between those who seek to adapt in creative ways and those who want to cling to old methods and old myths.
Given my obsession (and a touch of hero-worship when it comes to Billy Beane), I was delighted to have a chance to attend a symposium held recently at the Villanova University School of Law (@VillanovaSELJ) with Beane, Omar Minaya and Jeffrey Moorad from the Padres, Phil Griffin of MSNBC, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (my livetweeting here; video from the School of Law here). I learned about the inner workings of baseball management, but I also got some insight into the core values to be gleaned from Moneyball and how they might be applied to my approach to work.
According to Phil Griffin, these core values — what he learned from Moneyball and how he implemented them in his overhaul of MSNBC — are challenging authority while understanding your purpose and goals, and working with talented and experienced people who are willing to participate. Discipline in following your philosophy is key. I would say that collaborating in the work of formulating the philosophy, as well as sharing the discipline, are also important, but the point is to stay focused based on good information and adjust in the face of bad (or no) information.
Beane, in his comments, offered a caveat. The problem with trying to stay focused on goals and purpose is noise. Too much noise. Baseball, Beane says, is a game full of noise. Journalists telling you you’re doing it wrong. Fans telling you you’re doing it wrong. Scouts, managers, guys who believe in heart not numbers: all telling you you’re doing it wrong. Maybe you are doing it wrong.
Until you win some games.
If we can start to tune out some of the noise, we might be able to stay focused more effectively on our purpose. We can concentrate on good information and the results and opportunities they can offer, rather than giving in to emotional responses or short-term stresses. (Anamaria Dutceac in her “Get Smarter” post here has great things to say along these lines.) David Rock in his Your Brain at Work talks about something similar, and gives some specific strategies for clearing out the static. Imagine your brain as a stage, with you as the director. All your worries and issues and uncertainties and problems—as well as your goals and hopes—are actors, and they reeaallly want their turn on stage. They jostle and crowd for their turn. They yell their lines and nudge and pester for a better spot. As the director, you get to tell them what to do, and to be most effective you have to tell them that only one of them gets to be on stage at a time. Everyone else has to clear off. They have to shut up and let you get back to work.
I’m not talking about a hard-headed refusal to listen to reason, good sense, and helpful feedback offered in a spirit of generosity and collegiality. These are necessary, and I value the people in my life who provide these things. I hope I provide them for others. I’m talking about the people and things, external forces and our own fears, worries, and distractions, that keep us from sticking to our plan. Sometimes we really are doing it wrong, and hopefully someone wiser will step in to guide us. But sometimes, too much noise in the short term—and paying too much attention to it—can keep us from achieving what we know will be good—for us, for our students, for our institutions—in the long term.
And sometimes, well, maybe sometimes whatever is making all that noise might need to be shouted down.
What are your noisemakers, and how do you tune them out?
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed