Photo: Jim, the Photographer via Flickr
I recently had a conversation with my new publisher about the book I’m currently writing. I asked, “What would make this book a home run for you?” (I’m not a baseball fan, but I am a fan of baseball analogies). He replied, “There are no home runs in publishing, Ozan. Just singles and doubles.”
I can’t tell you how much I love this response.
For all my life, I’ve been trying to hit home runs, but end up feeling dismayed when I inevitably come up short. As obvious as it is, this realization came as a huge relief: It’s impossible to hit home runs every time you step up to the plate. What’s more, you don’t need to hit a home run every time you step up to the plate.
But don’t take it from me. Remember the Amazon Fire phone? The company lost $170 million over that gigantic misfire. Or even better, the Google Glass? It was supposed to be the next best thing after the smartphone, but ended up as an embarrassing failure. This was one piece of technology that was decidedly uncool to sport: People wearing it were branded “glassholes.” These products feel like a distant memory now. When we look at successful businesses like Amazon and Google, we remember the highlights, not the lowlights. As Jeff Bezos says, “A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”
Put differently, you must kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince.
Speaking of princes, Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors. He’s made over a hundred movies, and he says “seven or eight were good, a dozen more are decent, and the rest are god awful.” But we don’t remember the crappy Tom Hanks movies (yes, I’m talking about Turner and Hooch). We remember Philadelphia, Big, and Apollo 13.
Adam Grant gives several additional examples in his book, Originals. Shakespeare is known for a small number of his classics, but in the span of two decades, he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets, some of which have been “consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plots and character development.” Picasso produced 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, only a fraction of which are noteworthy. Just a handful of Einstein’s 248 publications had real impact. But when we judge the greatness of these individuals,” Grant writes, “we focus not on their averages, but their peaks.”
There’s a passage that I love in the private notes of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (published posthumously as Meditations). From 2,000 years ago, he writes: “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.” Arguably the most powerful man at the time is reassuring himself that it’s okay to not be Plato, that he can’t hit home runs every time.
If that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is.
Consistent home runs are not only impossible, but trying to hit a home run every time can cripple the batter. This was the Achilles heel of the great tennis player Andre Agassi. As he explains in his autobiography, Open, one of his trainers told him: “You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time. . . . There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times.”
The question I asked my publisher was flawed. Life isn’t about repeatedly hitting home runs. Rather, it’s about strikeouts, singles, and doubles, until we slowly, but steadily, reach home base.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).