A few years ago, at a private event, Google founder Larry Page told the audience that the way he evaluates prospective companies and entrepreneurs is by a single metric—asking them if what they’re working on is something that could “change the world.”
It’s both an inspired way to look at things and also a clichéd trope. It also happens to be rather delusional.
Because that’s not how Google started (Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two Stanford PhDs working on their dissertations). It’s not how YouTube started (its founders weren’t trying to reinvent TV; they were trying to share funny video clips or maybe create a dating website).
Trying to “change the world” was not the mission with which most great or successful things started out with. It’s only our ego, afterwards, that creates these stories. And it blinds us to the traits which actually create success.
In 1979, football coach and general manager Bill Walsh took the 49ers from being the worst team in football, and perhaps all of professional sports, to a Super Bowl victory in just three years.
It would have been tempting, as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over his head, to tell himself that the quickest turnaround in NFL history had been his plan all along. Especially when the media had taken to calling him the “Genius.”
Except Walsh knew how it had actually happened.
The year before he arrived, the 49ers were 2 and 14. The organization was demoralized, broken, without draft picks, and fully ensconced in a culture of losing. His first season, they lost another fourteen games. When people asked Walsh whether he had a timetable for winning the Super Bowl, do you know what his answer was? The answer was always no. For Walsh to claim to know when things would turn around would have been delusional.
So instead of focusing on winning or some arbitrary date for success, Walsh implemented what he called his “Standard of Performance.” What should be done. When. How. He focused on seemingly trivial details: Players could not sit down on the practice field. Coaches had to wear a tie and tuck their shirts in. Everyone had to give maximum effort and commitment. Sportsmanship was essential. The locker room must be neat and clean. There would be no smoking, no fighting, no profanity. Quarterbacks were told where and how to hold the ball. Linemen were drilled on thirty separate critical drills. Passing routes were monitored and graded down to the inch. Practices were scheduled to the minute.
And he eventually did start to win. In his third season, they went to the Super Bowl and won.
We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours. So we can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that come our way. Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks. Or even: I thought this could happen.
Of course you didn’t really know all along—or if you did, it was more faith than knowledge. But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself?
Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story—and turns us into caricatures—while we still have to live it. And this was true for the 49ers, too. Their two seasons after the Super Bowl, they lost 12 of 22 games. Why? Because the players were more than happy to accept the credit and prowess the media thrust upon them. Ego ran amok.
But not for Bill Walsh. He understood that it was really the Standard of Performance—the deceptively small things—that was responsible for the team’s transformation and victory. Only when the team returned to the Standard of Performance did they win again (three more Super Bowls and nine conference or division championships in a decade). Only when they stopped with the stories and focused on the task at hand did they begin to win like they had before.
The founding of a company, making money in the market, building a career are all messy things. Reducing it to a narrative retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there. We must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned. There was no grand narrative. You should remember—you were there when it happened. As entrepreneur and author Paul Graham—writing not far from where Bill Walsh practiced with the 49ers—says, we need to “keep our identities small.” Make it about the work and the principles behind it—not about a glorious vision.
Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must defer the credit or crown and continue working on what got us here.
Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
This excerpt was adapted from Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego Is the Enemy. It has been republished here with permission.