Phelps and Cavic / 2008 Olympics

Fundamentals Beat Fancy Tools

If you know how to swim, you don’t need to build a boat.

This is one of my favorite photos. It captures a moment at the end of a race that was a dead heat for Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic during the 2008 Olympics. Phelps won the race by 1/100 of a second. It wasn’t because of speed, it wasn’t because of tenacity, it was because of fundamentals. A half second before the race was over Cavic lifted his head and it served as a speed bump that slowed him down at the end, Phelps didn’t stop swimming until he touched the wall. He didn’t lift his head, he kept swimming, because he knew exactly what to do and did it the right way every single time - he was better at the fundamentals.

When I was younger I had a lot of homework, not from school - from my mother. She would make me practice long division, my times tables, and write book reports while other kids were watching tv or playing video games. In car rides I would be tested on spelling and would be given math problems that now I use a calculator for. But back then, when I was five or six years old - I had to practice the fundamentals. More than once I remember my mom at a checkout line doing math in her head and telling the teller the computer was wrong, funny enough - she was usually right. When I watched her negotiate at a street market, or in a back room of a car dealership it was the same thing. She would use pencil and paper and her head to figure out everything down to the tax and did it better than the guy behind the desk with a calculator. She knew her fundamentals and wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

2012 was about fundamentals for me. That was my mantra this year and it paid off big time. I went back to what I was best at: telling stories and connecting with people. This was something I got lazy with over the last couple of years and banked on my strengths only when I really needed them to keep up, not necessarily to fall ahead. The sad part was, I knew I was good enough to slack off and still execute really well, because I knew how to leverage strategies in a way that my competition was less effective at - that meant I could work faster, more effectively, and in a more disciplined manner when it mattered most. Truth is - it always matters. Not losing isn’t the same as winning.

So what is my focus for 2013? Acceleration. I am pressing the gas pedal and I have a heavy foot. What does this really mean? It means that I have spent 2012 investing and I am going to spend 2013 building on the foundations of my fundamentals - flexing their true power, and it is a power I draw not from the tools you probably used to read this article, but rather the foundation that was laid for them to be built centuries ago.

In some regions of the world, they have clung to an old tradition, that we have recreated online. When two people meet one another for the first time, say a merchant and a tradesman, they will recite their personal histories. The merchant will tell the tradesman who he is, who is father is, who his grandfather is, where his family is from, and their various roles in society. The tradesman would do the same until they recognized a point of intersection. There is always a person, a place, or an event that linked them. This link informed how they treated one another. We now use Google for this very same outcome. I do too, but that is just to check my map.

Before there was Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, I used to map relationships in real time. I actually draw out who knew who, how they met, why they continue to be friends, and then hypothesize on who else they might need to know given their trajectory. I would create a profile for each person, complete with likes, dislikes, values, and notable things that mattered to them. I would even practice the specific voice inflections, cadence, and method in which these people delivered their truths. I wouldn’t just learn their story, I would practice telling the story they told of themselves, in their own words. I created a web, never completed, only to grow with each new piece of information. I would study this map, practice reciting it, and internalize the script of each person as I understood it to be true. Through this process I would discover connections and ideas that most people miss and I leverage those discoveries. I still do this today, but I have gotten better at it. I can do it in my mind with a sense that give me an edge over what any technology can tell me. I’m not afraid to say I am good at this - this is where I win. You shouldn’t be afraid of your strengths either, leave that to your competition.

I spent 2012 doing this in a very disciplined way and set out exactly who I needed to be talking to, who I needed to help, and who I needed to better understand. It took a long time. I hit road blocks, I misjudged some of the web, and I even missed the mark a couple times. But fundamentals are forgiving, as long as you keep learning, refining, and executing again. There is room for error because fundamentals reduce missteps to teachable moments as long as you pay attention.

While technology may be your friend - your fundamentals will beat anything that doesn’t account for your agility and ability. Your effectiveness on any tool can only be enhanced if you know how to leverage their gaps and shortcomings, given your strengths - not the strength of the tool. Look for what you don’t see - and begin there.

In 2013 I am accelerating and building what I know to be true, based on centuries of wisdom and fundamentals - not just on what everyone else says is possible. There is always room for learning and getting better - but there isn’t room for shying away to allow for a tool to take over, but capitalizing on your strength to compensate for the weaknesses of the tools available.

Remember, if you know how to swim, you don’t need to build a boat.

Happy New Year!