“Routine is the enemy of time. It makes it fly by. When you’re a kid everything is astonishing, everything is new.”
Two years ago, my wife and I decided to take golf lessons because we wanted to find an activity that we could enjoy together for years to come. I was resistant at first because I had tried taking classes while in business school at Stanford, but couldn’t get myself to wake up for 9am class (our MBA happy hours were always the night before!). Once I got out on the course, I was so flustered by the game that I never wanted to go back. Almost a decade later, a bunch of our friends had all decided to take golf lessons at the same time, so I decided to give it a shot again. I’m so glad that I did on multiple levels.
After we started taking the lessons, I found myself really enjoying learning a new sport. I hadn’t felt this way about anything in a long time. It was like discovering a new music artist and listening to their entire discography on Spotify. Or discovering an author and then consuming all of their books in a few weeks. Or watching the first episode of Breaking Bad and then losing sleep for five days straight to watch all five seasons. Imagine that feeling but 10x better because it never has to end.
Golf opened up a new world to me. I found myself wanting to play constantly. I would spend hours at the driving range and working on my short game and time would fly by. I wanted to improve my game so I could play with my friends who had played for years. I hadn’t been this passionate anything in a long time and it was invigorating. More importantly, the lessons I was learning from the game of golf were very relevant and applicable to my career and life.
You Can Always Recover
I found that playing a round of golf for me was a way to escape the world. It was like getting to go on a mini-vacation. You get to be outdoors in beautiful settings that I had never really experienced before. You also get to spend several hours with good friends and new friends talking about life. On top of all this, you get to play a game that challenges you personally both physically and mentally. You intuitively want to do one thing with your arms and the club, but the result isn’t always what you would expect. Sometimes this is confounding, but eventually you have to learn to trust yourself and your swing. Letting go of everything in your head liberates not only your mind, but also your golf swing. Mentally you have to learn to forget about a bad shot or bad hole and wipe the slate clean for the next shot or next hole. That’s the beauty of the game, every shot is a chance to redeem the last, every hole is a new beginning.
If you shot a double bogey (two strokes over par) on your last hole, you can hit a par or birdie on the next hole and save your round. No matter how badly a hole goes, you can make it up over the next two or three holes. In life or in work, if you have a setback you just need the confidence and patience to recover. It may take some time, but if you are thoughtful, strategic and not reckless, you can always get back on track. The worst thing you can do when you blow up a hole is to let your anger and frustration carry over and ruin your next several holes. You have to step back and reset your mental state. Self-awareness in golf is critical as is self-awareness in life. As the profound philosopher Ice Cube once said, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
Set Yourself Up for Success
When you play golf, 70% of your shot is determined by how well you set up. If your grip is slightly off, if your club face is not aligned properly, if your ball is in the wrong position…all of these factors and many others need to be correct in order for the ball to go where you want it to go. A few degrees off can lead to many yards of error which can be the difference from fairway and green or sand and water.
On top of making sure your body, grip, stance, etc. are all in the right setup position, you also have to make adjustments for your environment (as if there wasn’t enough to think about already!). You need to take into account the “lie” which is whether the ball is sitting above or below your feet or if it’s deep in rough or sitting on dirt. You also have to consider if there are any obstacles in front of your ball flight path like a tree branch, which ideally you can avoid dealing with altogether! You can always adjust for these environmental factors and avoid trouble by choking up on the club, putting the ball in the back of your stance, stepping further back or closer to the ball, putting more weight on your left or right foot and the list of adjustments goes on and on. Knowing how to adjust your setup for your environment is how you can eliminate devastating errors.
Even before you even set up, you need to know which club to use to reach the exact desired distance. The only way to know what distances your clubs will hit, you need to regularly go to the driving range to hit balls with all of your clubs. Knowing your toolset is critical to success on the course.
If you are 100 yards from the hole and you know you hit your pitching wedge 100 yards, you will feel confident because you know the right tool to use. Being prepared, adjusting for your environment and understanding your capabilities allows you to set yourself up for success. Familiarity with your strengths and weaknesses is key to succeeding in anything. Even when you know what you are capable of, you always need to set yourself up properly. Hire the right team. Secure enough capital. Attracting the right advisors and investors. Know your customers and competitors well. Your swing will always have a better chance of getting the ball to the hole if you are set up properly every single time.
Take Calculated Risks
I never understood what the term “Tin Cup” meant until I saw the movie on cable one night. Kevin Costner’s character Roy McAvoy is a washed up golf pro that gets back into the competitive golf. At the U.S. Open, he has a chance to go to a playoff if he simply plays conservatively for a par on the 18th hole. Instead he tries to “go for it” and go for the green instead of laying up (hitting the ball short in a safe area and taking another shot to the green). He reaches the green but the ball rolls off and into the water. He proceeds to hit twelve more shots from the same position out of anger and they all end with similar disastrous results. Roy eliminated himself from contention by allowing his ego to get the best of him. This is easily the biggest reason golfers get themselves in trouble. Designers of golf courses prey on this ego by strategically placing sand traps and water hazards in places where ego gets you almost every time. Damn you Alister MacKenzie!
There’s a term that I’ve learned since starting my golf journey called “course management”. It’s all about taking calculated risks on the course. If it’s a par four and you can safely get to the green in three strokes and take a bogey, then you should do it. The temptation is to try to hit the green in two even if it’s slightly out of your range and there’s a nothing but beaches surrounding the green. The right play is to hit the ball well short of trouble, and then hit it safely on the green for two putts and settle for a bogey. Instead your ego tells you that you can do this and get it to the green, so you end up hitting a fried egg deep in the sand. You walk away with a double bogey or worse because you let your ego choose your fate. That’s course management.
Course management in your career means knowing how to capitalize on opportunities and how to avoid pitfalls. Capitalize on opportunities by choosing the right companies to work with, aligning with the right people, building the right network and executing well. Avoid pitfalls of wasting time on projects or partnerships that will inevitably fail, hiring people that will take up more of your time than saving you time, or becoming distracted with shiny objects like new technologies or methodologies. Course managing your career will allow you to optimize your outcome by letting you control what you can control and avoiding “tin cupping” it.
Discovering the game of golf has literally changed my life. It’s changed how I spend my weekends and my perspective on a lot of things. Golf might not be for you, but hopefully you can appreciate some of the life and business lessons it has given me. More importantly, I highly recommend finding something new that you can be excited about that might give you a new outlook on life. Don’t get stuck in a routine because you’re just speeding up the arrival of death. Become a kid again, because you’re never too old to try something new.