Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why do I "waste so much time on this," he asks.

This is really a p.s. to this morning's post about Sportsthink and the World Series. I'm giving it its own space because an email I received off-blog reminds me of the importance of reminding you (non-sports fans in particular) of why I harp on this stuff. Quite simply, much of institutional America sees life through a sports prism. Sports is already the dominant metaphor in the corporate boardroom. And more and more, sports-inspired themes openly and unapologetically underlie the operative script in politics and even U.S. diplomacy, where one might say sports encapsulates the American view—or maybe I should say, the American "game plan." Just realize what's actually happening here: When we invest ourselves in Sportsthink, we're allowing our approach to life to be informed (if not guided) by ideas and metaphors whose validity is highly suspect even in the realm in which they originated...which is to say, sports itself.

But no matter. Today it's all about empowerment; unbeatable confidence; a winning mindset; getting in the zone and staying there. The one who wins is the one who wants it the most. We find it in the most minute minutiae of daily living. Not long ago I blogged about Gillette's glossy new ad campaign for its razors, built around the PMAs of its three high-profile athlete-pitchmen. More recently I've seen spots for a deodorant that empowers women. (That's not just my inference. The woman in the ad explicitly says that she feels "empowered" after using this product under her arms.)

I'm tempted to say that you need to read my book (particularly Chapter 5, "Ya Gotta Want It!", and the conclusion, "A SHAM Society") to feel the full weight of arguments like the one I'm making here—to really understand just how pervasive Sportsthink is. You can also find a more succinct (and free) version of a related argument in this piece I did for National Review Online. I'll be even more succinct and direct here, however: Never mind what you heard the other day on Oprah. This whimsical notion that "feeling empowered" is the sine qua non of success—that attitude trumps all, on the athletic field and off—is one of the great unsung tragedies of modern life. It may, in fact, be the major social ill confronting post-millennial America. Not AIDS, not MRSA, not HPV. But rampant, malignant empowerment. It infects everything.

The overselling of PMA, as expressed in today's relentless crusade to uncouple the likes of confidence and self-esteem from the likes of talent and provable skill, is already crippling our national pursuit of genuine excellence, and may someday undo us altogether. And I don't think it's being melodramatic to say so. Look at it this way: We are in Iraq—a place we clearly should not have gone—at least in part because our president felt confident in our ability to "smoke 'em out!" We we were gonna show our enemies, by gosh, what it means to be an angry, driven Amurikin.* Today—some 4000 lost Amurikin lives later—we're finally realizing that maybe bravado alone doesn't cut it in such matters. Maybe you need something more. Hell, forget about not having an "exit strategy"; apparently we never had much of an enter strategy beyond "let's go kick some ass!"**

Confidence may start wars, but it it takes competence to win them.

And that, folks, is why I "waste all this time" on sports.

* I'm using the native Crawford, Texas pronunciation.
** And it doesn't really matter if you take the even more cynical view: that we went to Iraq for oil, Halliburton, etc. I still think that Bush wouldn't have gone in if he didn't believe that the war was easily winnable, and/or that any problems that came up could be easily resolved. After all, we're the U.S. of A.


gregory said...

yeah, but sportstalk came from wartalk, wartalk is from what? ego? testosterone? a great desire to continue living?

feeling one is limited, rather than whole and complete, is at the basis of all of this, (and that is from identifying with the body and mind, rather than the awareness that one is, but that is too much for this crowd, i think)

you note, "Quite simply, much of institutional America sees life through a sports prism" and i offer that the whole world sees life through some sort of prism or another, and i lay almost all social problems to this fact....

this is why i see self-transcendence as a necessity to a richer life..

Steve Salerno said...

That's a good point, Gregory, but Sportsthink is an extraordinarily reductivist version of war-think. In fact, in the course of doing SHAM (the book) I interviewed a number of consultants who specialize in business wargaming, and who gave me the usual referrals to Sun-Tzu, etc. To a man, they were scornful of Sportsthink. Now, you'd expect a wargamer to sneer at a sportsthinker (like Tommy Lasorda or Pat Riley) because they're competitors for the same Fortune 500 dollar. So I took that into account. But one thing I have to say about wargaming is that it places a premium on tactics and the logical (or at least methodical) allocation of resources, etc. A true war-game scenario--of the sort that's designed, say, by Jay Kurtz of The Kappa Group--is an extremely painstaking plan of action that contains many if/then scenarios, detailed analyses of the competition, your own strengths and weaknesses, etc. In some ways it is the very antithesis of Sportsthink, which emphasizes PMA above all--almost as if you don't even need any of that silly strategy or skill stuff.

I dare say, it often looks as if our own military leaders could take a refresher course from some of the leaders of business wargaming.

gregory said...