What Makes Things Great


It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great. – Jimmy Dugan; A League of Their Own

Tom Hanks as fictional baseball great Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own”, 1992

I love baseball!

As a kid it was the only sport that I was even remotely good at.  That’s not saying much.  My batting average was well below .250, and I was stuck out in left field, otherwise known as the no man’s land of defensive positions for kid’s baseball. 

My saving grace was the fact that I had a good eye, or maybe I was just too timid to swing the bat and ten-year-old pitchers aren’t exactly known for their control.  As a result, I batted second and walked a lot.  I also scored a lot of runs because I was almost always on base when our best hitters came up.  Defensively I was fairly decent at running down fly balls, but my arm was horrible, so all the opposing players had to us was tag up and they were reasonably assured of advancing at least one base, maybe two if my throw was weak or off line, which it usually was. 

But I still love the game.  Maybe also because as a Canadian kid who could never master the art of ice-skating and hated to be cold, playing hockey was out of the question.  So I stayed inside and waited for spring when all the kids in town turned their attention from skating and black rubber hockey pucks to running and white leather balls.

As I got older, I noticed something else about baseball.  It’s really hard. 

Baseball is deceptively hard because at first glance, with the exception of the pitcher, it might not look like the players are really doing all that much.  But hitting a ball, that’s approximately two and half inches in diameter, coming at you at 80-90 plus miles per hour, with a wooden club, keeping it within a 90 degree area in front of you and sufficiently away from 9 defenders so that you can run 90 feet without getting caught… is hard.  Really, really, hard.

Success in baseball is measured in ratios.  For a batter a ratio of .300 (or 30%) is considered good.  That’s why it’s three strikes and you’re out, giving a hitter any less than three attempts would be unfair, and really boring to watch.  That’s also why hitters are obsessed with their number of at bats.  Most hitters will tell you they need to get up to bat at least 4 times in a game before they can have a reasonable expectation of contributing anything to the success of the team. 

My baseball career ended when I was 14.  My sub .250 batting average and rubber arm made me a liability that the increasingly competitive teams in our area just couldn’t take a chance on, so I retired.  But the lessons I learned on the diamond have served me well in life and as we prepare to move into a New Year I’ve been thinking about a few of them while I’ve worked on my business plan. 

Here are 4 things I learned playing baseball that have applications in business and in life. 

1 – Do Hard Things

You never learn anything if everything you do is easy.  John F. Kennedy, when he announced the United States plan to put a man on the moon in 1962 put it this way. 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It took seven years, but the things NASA learned along the way contributed to their success and have served humanity in ways many of us will never fully grasp. 

The term “moon shot” stems from this moment in history.  Pick a goal that is hard, that if you were to try it right know you are practically guaranteed to fail at and put all your energy into learning about it and getting better over a long period of time and you just might succeed.

2 – Success is Failure

Or put another way, every failure leads you one step closer to success.  What happens when a batter strikes out?  They come back the next time even more determined to hit the ball.  I’ve done the math, nearly every success is proceeded by a failure, sometimes many failures.  The key isn’t to try and knock the ball out of the park every time, it’s just to get a little better every day. 

3 – Never Stop Learning

Professionals are always trying to get better at their chosen craft.  Athletes study game tape and pick apart their performance, then they hit the gym or the practice field and work on their mechanics.  They are constantly learning in order to get better. 

Between 1962 and 1969 NASA launched 10 Apollo missions before they ever attempted to land one.  Why?  Because they needed to learn as much as they could first, people’s lives were at stake.

Business people read and test new theories all the time.  We are always learning.

4 – Results Matter More

When I played baseball, I quickly learned that no matter how I did it, getting on base was the real goal.  “A walk’s as good as a hit!”, my coach would call from the dugout as the umpire called out “Ball Four!” and I trotted down to first base.  I soon led my team in walks, hit by pitch and runs scored.  While walking isn’t nearly as fun or flashy as hitting a frozen rope over the head of the short stop, the result is the same. 

Pick a result or set a goal and then do everything you can to achieve it.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work.

And remember, just because it’s hard doesn’t make something not worth doing.  The hard… is what makes achieving things great. 

Happy New Year – see you in 2019.

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