When it comes to being great, the secret is in the dirt

Is the secret to success really just about being willing to get into the dirt?

If you have spent more than a few minutes with me, then you likely have heard me chatter on about my passion for the game of golf dating back to when I started playing seriously twenty years ago.

In my experience in the professional world, I am often struck by how many of the lessons I’ve learned playing golf apply to the work I do on a day-to-day basis. One quote from the famously ornery golfer, Ben Hogan, sticks out to me the most when considering lessons learned. Someone once asked Hogan to explain what the secret to golf is and he curtly responded that

“the secret is in the dirt.”

At first glance, this statement seems like a vague piece of golfing jargon, but following a bit of deeper consideration, there are several valuable lessons to be gleaned from Hogan’s words that can be relevant for professionals in any field.

For me, the most important (and apparent) lesson from Hogan’s quote is the implied value of hard work, perseverance, and persistence. Like a golfer who spends countless hours on the range refining their swing, professionals in any field must be willing to put in the time and effort to improve their skills.

In business, this “digging of the dirt” may come in the form of working long hours to finalize a grueling contract negotiation, taking on an extra workstream that stretches your capabilities, or expanding your comfort zone through taking a public speaking course. These actions may feel like you are digging your way out of a never-ending hole, but when you’re able to reflect on them with some distance and perspective often prove to be the most instrumental in career advancement and growth.

Another important lesson I’ve taken from Hogan’s quote is the value in paying attention to the details.

In golf, a seemingly minor change to your angle of attack, grip pressure, or ball position can make an enormous difference in a shot’s outcome. What would appear to be two identical swings can result in vastly different results and it takes a trained eye to be able to detect the nuanced cause. Similarly, in business, small changes in a marketing strategy, product design, or updated process flow can produce an outsized impact on overall success. Things that make major differences are not always accompanied by major adjustments, so paying attention to the details in the dirt is vital.

For me, the secret in the dirt can be and can manifest as an innocuous second review of an upcoming presentation during which I find an embarrassing typo or as extreme as digging into a 40,000-line data set. The more I take the time to understand the details of an analysis or project, the better the outcome tends to be.

The “secret in the dirt” also represents the reality of failure and the fact that this can spur on future success.

High-performing professionals understand that failure is an essential part of the overall learning process and that it can provide valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t. By embracing failure and framing it as an opportunity to learn and grow, professionals can develop the resilience and perseverance necessary to achieve their goals. Tiger Woods, considered by many to be the best golfer ever, has only won 22% of the tournaments he has competed in; this means he fails in nearly 4 out of every 5 tournaments he enters. Keeping this winning percentage in mind helps me contextualize my own failures, whether that be an analysis that leads to no relevant insights or a working session which was not as productive as I hoped it would be. Realizing how to objectively assess the outcome, regroup, and internalize the lessons learned has been an important part of my professional development.

At its core, Ben Hogan’s secret in the dirt is that there is no secret in the dirt. Success requires hard work, persistence, the willingness to focus on fundamental details, and the value of failure. It is easy to believe that business lessons only come from education, books, or work experience, but I have learned just as much from unconventional sources (like a 70-year-old quote from a grumpy golfer).

Now it’s your turn: What secrets have you learned from digging it out of the dirt?

AI and the emergence of the centaur imperative for professionals everywhere

If the future of knowledge work isn’t now…it isn’t too far off.

Geoff Wilson

We’ve seen a lot of press recently on the launch and adoption of OpenAI’s ChatGPT client.

Suddenly, you can ask for an essay on any commonly covered topic and it will be written, in the voice that you choose; and you can receive it in seconds.

Suddenly, you can ask for a summary of research on almost any topic that is commonly covered, and with a couple of iterations and refinements spanning minutes, you can get a fairly well-structured list of facts…in seconds.

Suddenly, you can ask for a limerick on a dog eating dog food in las vegas, and have it instantaneously.

Ok, so that last one is true, but maybe less useful.

This technology, basically a natural language-enabled interface with the publicly available knowledge in the world up to about 2021, represents a change, a threat, and a massive disruption to knowledge workers everywhere.

At WGP, we often discuss a hierarchy of professional capability that goes something like this:

  • Produce process:  Get clarity on the steps to take if you have nothing else.  This is the most basic professional function.
  • Produce data:  Gather the facts, get the numbers in place, and provide the foundation for analysis.  This is the next level of professional function.
  • Produce insight: Analyze the data and produce higher-level insights that range from the mundane to the blinding.  This is the expectation of good professionals of all sorts.
  • Produce synthesis: Combine insights, draw implications, and deliver orthogonal thinking that re-sets direction and creates truly new thinking.  This is professional nirvana.  When you find someone who does this well, cherish them.

If we think about the implications for professional services of AI tools like ChatGPT, it’s easy to see that suddenly machines have gone from repositories and accelerators of process, data, and insight generation approaches to a very viable resource (more than a tool) for actually generating these things.

I have never looked at MS Excel and said “create for me a 3-statement financial model structure” and had anything happen.  That has been the realm of analysts and experts.  AI tools are going to do this in no time (if not already).

I have never looked MS Project and said “create for me a basic project plan in 50 steps to deliver a market research report on the stick whittling industry.”  That has been the realm of consulting managers and associates.  AI tools are going to do this in no time (if not already).

Machines are quickly going to overtake people in generally acceptable process, data, and insight generation.

It wasn’t too long ago that these things were only done by people.  For years, consulting firms have silo’d and offshored research capabilities to low-cost countries.  For years, law firms have hired lower-cost labor for legal research.  These lower-level professional functions are unlikely to survive the evolution of AI resources.

So what’s the imperative?

We’ll explore it further in other posts, but I’ll summarize it as this:  The future average professional will have to have the skills of the best professionals today…that is, the ability to critically assess vast amounts of available information, to provide proprietary insight not generally available or acceptable, and to generate unconventional synthesis.  

This will be true across all legal, medical, consulting, and executive services.

The future professional will be a centaur:  The head of a powerfully insightful and resourceful human on the body of a powerfully informed AI resource that provides available world knowledge at fingertip reach.

The age of summarizing Bureau of Labor Statistics data and saying “AHA!” are over.  We are entering the age of professionals delivering on what most consulting firms claim they deliver on:  Proprietary, differentiated, confidential insights.  We are also entering the age of human interpretation of machine-driven insights.

In short, we’re entering the age of the centaur professional.  If you hire professionals, demand a centaur.  If you are a professional…time to upgrade.

What do you think?  How do you think AI resources will alter the way we work in the coming years?  What’s the right path to “best” in this new world?