“Our best selves” — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football and life

Reading made me a baseball fan—thank you, Roger Angell. And it may just make me a football fan, too. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football may teach us a thing or two about life.

Angela Duckworth wrote about Carroll’s philosophy in her book Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. And I have to say, I liked what I read.

Pete Carroll's lessons work for football and life
Carroll hugs his quarterback, Richard Sherman, following their 2014 Super Bowl win. Photo: Anthony Quintano – Flickr: Super Bowl XLVIII (48) New York New Jersey

Carroll has only coached one Super Bowl-winning team (so far—Seahawks, 2014), but in the last seven seasons, his teams have made the playoffs six times. That’s no accident.

Also not accidental: the philosophy he instills in his players and coaches. It’s not about winning. It’s about a passion to do your best.

When Carroll invited Angela Duckworth to come watch the Seahawks practice he promised she would see that:

“All we do is help people be great competitors. We teach them how to persevere. We unleash their passion.”

Carroll says it sometimes takes a while for new players to understand his philosophy, so he shares new thoughts about it as they arise:

“If I didn’t talk about it, they wouldn’t know that. They’d be thinking, ‘Am I going to win or am I going to lose?’ But when we talk about it enough, they come to an appreciation of why they compete.”

Pete Carroll’s lessons in etymology

You might guess that a Venn diagram of people who talk about etymology and people who work for football teams would show two completely separate circles. And you would be wrong.

One member of the Seahawks staff talked to Duckworth about the roots of the word “compete”:

“‘Compete comes from the Latin,’ explains Mike Gervais, the competitive-surfer-turned-sports-psychologist who is one of Pete’s partners in culture building. ‘Quite literally, it means strive together. It doesn’t have anything in its origins about another person losing.'”

Duckworth begins to understand the Seahawks ethos:

“…it’s not solely about defeating other teams, it’s about pushing beyond what you can do today so that tomorrow you’re just a little bit better. It’s about excellence…Reach for your best.”

Carroll’s Seahawks made the Super Bowl two years in a row. After winning the first, they lost the second in heartbreaking fashion. Commentators laid the blame squarely at the head coach’s feet, saying he had made “the worst call ever.” Duckworth tells us Carroll reframed that:

“it wasn’t the worst decision, it was ‘the worst possible outcome.’ He explained that like every other negative experience, and every positive one, ‘it becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!‘”

When life is like football

One of Pete Carroll’s lessons offers a different take on the sports cliché that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Carroll says,

“If you thought of it as who was winning and who was losing, you’d miss the whole point…it’s really the guy across from us that makes us who we are.”

In Duckworth’s translation, “Our opponent…creates challenges that help us become our best selves.”

And that’s really why I turned my attention to Pete Carroll today. Not because football will be inescapable this weekend—with fans critiquing the game and non-fans critiquing the commercials. Well, okay, partly because of that.

But also because in the U.S. right now, it seems like “opponents” are everywhere. And we have a choice. We can vilify them, mock them, and cause them to dig further into their illogical ideological foxholes. Or we can recognize that while it’s no fun to be challenged, those challenges can “help us become our best selves.”

That’s what I’m striving for. In the face of “the worst possible outcome,” we must “compete”—strive together. As one of my favorite signs from the march put it:

“They tried to bury us. But they didn’t know we’re seeds.”

Be your best self as a writer. Strengthen your skills and discover how to use them effectively. My Writing Unbound program starts February 2nd. More information here.

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle”: Happiness and writing

In his book The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha writes about the linear way most of us approach a new task: We can do it; we want to do it; so we do it.

Pasricha argues that removing logic from this line can make us happier. After all, if we only do things we already know we can do, how can we explore or grow?

Neil Pasricha's "Do Circle"
illustration by Neil Pasricha from The Happiness Equation

So he takes the same elements but arranges them in a circle. “Do” sits at the 12 o’clock position, so it seems a logical starting place. By doing, we learn that we “Can Do” and so we “Want to Do” this new thing even more. And so the cycle repeats. But really, you can start anywhere and end anywhere. Or not end at all. It’s up to you.

Accomplishment generates happiness. More doing = more happiness. And who can argue with that outcome?

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle” and Writing

So you want to write something? Pasricha describes the linear-thinking approach to the task:

“Want to write a book? I’ll take a writing course to learn how. Then I’ll find the perfect coffee shop to get inspired. Then I’ll write a masterpiece.”

Um, no.

I mean, yes, you can study—you should study writing. But don’t wait for someone to certify you as a “good writer” before you launch into it. And by all means go to the coffee shop when you need a freshly ground espresso. But don’t fetishize your workplace.

I remember reading about one author—I wish I could remember her name—who wrote her first novel on her toddler’s bed, barricaded in his room, during the hours he thought she was at work. As I recall, she and the nanny had worked out a good-bye ritual for the kid to send her off to her job, then the nanny distracted him in the laundry room while mom sneaked back inside the apartment.

That woman was a writer. She had a story to tell. She would have written her novel standing up in a closet if she had to. I hope she had a good chiropractor.

And if you’re a member of LinkedIn, check out this piece by Olivia Barrow, called

“The hidden spots where top writers do their best work: in the pool, on the lawn mower, or while waiting for a bathroom”

So how do you become a writer—whether or not you have (or need) a nanny or a lawnmower? You write. Here’s Neil Pasricha again:

“Write one page. Even if it sucks. The fact you did it will convince you that you can do it. Then you’ll want to do it! Why? Because we love doing things that confirm our belief that we’re able to do them.”

Confirm your belief: Write

Start writing. Right now. Just pull up a document and write for five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good; just do it.

And then join us in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge. You write for five days in a row, for at least 15 minutes a day. Complete the challenge and you get an unparalleled sense of satisfaction that will make you want to write more. The perfect recipe for happiness. Oh, and when you complete the challenge I’ll donate $15 in your name to a wonderful charity. Click on over here for the details and grab some happiness in time for the new year.

“Executive Potential” and my dream job

I had a job interview, one of those massive ones where you’re meeting the whole team at once. I needed to dress to impress. Fortunately, I’d just bought a designer suit with a jacket so sharply tailored you could cut yourself. I strode into the interview knowing I looked like a million bucks, with my fancy new suit jacket and…jeans?

Don’t ask me where that anxiety dream came from—it’s new to my repertoire, which usually involves having to read a phone book-sized 19th century French novel the night before the final exam. (Ce n’est pas bon.)

The good news (in my dream world): I managed to explain away the half-casual look. The better news (in the real world): appearance doesn’t play much of a role when people evaluate “executive potential.”

At least that’s the conclusion Sylvia Ann Hewlett reached in her book Executive Presence. She identified three essential qualities for executives, and appearance came in a distant third—comprising just 5% of your score on the midterm of life. Just check out this photo of legendary financier J. P. Morgan illustrating a Forbes article about Hewlett’s research. It’s one of the few photos that clearly shows his large, bulbous nose covered with nodules. The senior Morgan hated having his picture taken (I feel ya, J.P.) and commanded most photographers to use early 20th century Photoshop techniques to hide the flaw. (Compare the candid photo in the link above to this portrait by Edward Steichen.) Still, the schnozz clearly didn’t hold the guy back; the financial empire he founded is still going strong today.

What Morgan lacked in attractiveness, he more than made up in the top two qualities Hewlett identified: gravitas and communication skills.

Hearing that made me even happier than landing that dream job. First, because it validates everything I’ve been telling my writing clients for over 25 years. And second, because that’s exactly the reason I’m opening my practice to up-and-coming executives. I know the communication skills they need because I’ve been deploying them on behalf of my executive clients. If they’re ready to break out from the pack and improve their communication skills, I can teach them.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow. In the meantime, check out Ron Chernow’s fascinating biography The House of Morgan.