What Golf’s Taught Me About Work, Life, Effort, and Geese

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I‘m not a fan of certain golf stereotypes. The loud, boorish, cigar-puffing blowhards that most people envision when they drive past country clubs. The belief that golf’s just a way for overweight, middle-aged white men to get away from their wives and flaunt their economic status. The tendency for golf to be snooty, expensive, and stuck up it’s own %#$.

And yet I love golf.

As an infant I watched golf with my dad, and cried when he cheered too loudly at a sunk putt. At three I was in the backyard with a little plastic club, mimicking the fluid swings of Tiger, Mickelson, and Furyk as well as my tiny toddler body could. Growing up a weekly round of golf with my dad was a constant, and even today we’ll chat over the phone about our latest rounds or who did what in the most recent PGA tournament.

My love for golf waxed and waned for years, before firmly taking hold around 2011. At 16 I made my high school’s golf team, became a starter, spent 6 days a week on courses all over Orange County, NY. Though my play-time’s waned over the years, my love for the game hasn’t.

The point is I’ve spent a lot of time with a golf club in my hands, and I’ve learned a lot from it. Not only about swing dynamics, break apexes, and grass grain patterns, but lessons about life that extend well beyond 18 holes.

Of all the good memories I’ve made with golf, my favorites involve long mornings walking the course solo with a bag on my shoulder and no sounds but the birds, leaves, and thwack of a well-struck iron.

Most of us live in a constant, fast-paced state of sensory overload. Long hours at work where we stare at three screens while four chat windows ping simultaneously and five emails torpedo our inbox every minute, followed by evenings in front of the T.V. before crawling into bed with the YouTube app lulling us into an Ambien-aided sleep. I personally had once gotten to the point where I put on podcasts before walking to the bathroom, since the idea of spending 3 minutes with minimal sensory stimulation seemed unbearable.

Like drugs, alcohol, and Swiss Rolls, there comes a point where we consume sensory stimulants less because we want to, and more because we feel like we need to. The quiet calm of a morning on the course is a great wake-up call & antidote to this common addiction. It allows me to reset and find joy in quiet existence, before I return to the daily hustle-and-bustle. Once back, it’s not like I completely renounce all Slack windows & Hulu sessions, like a religious fundamentalist rejecting all forms of modern “sin”. Instead I engage from a place of actual joy. I no longer fear the quiet moments of my life, and this lets me enjoy the hectic parts that much more.

Golf’s a tough game. The “expected” score (par) over 18 holes is shot regularly by only ~1.6% of all golfers.

Golf’s naming conventions imply that each hole bogeyed (or worse) is a failure, even though parring holes is incredibly rare for the average golfer. One duffed shot, one slice, one chunked chip, or one misread putt can completely torpedo any chance at par (explained by the phrase “trouble follows trouble”). While a sliced drive into the trees may directly cost you one or two strokes and lead you down bogey alley, it’s effect on your mental state can blow up any hopes of a good round if you’re not careful.

I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, and I fight it every time I play. One bad shot leads to a wave of frustration and anger, which dulls focus, throws you off your rhythm, and causes you to take stupid risks. The result is poor play that only gets you more angry, leading to a long downward spiral that doesn’t end until the 19th hole (a.k.a. the bar).

The solution? Play one shot at a time. Accept that the last shot didn’t go so well, learn what you can from it, breathe, let it go, and direct all your attention towards making the most of the next shot in front of you.

We’re human, we mess up. There’s no way that we’ll avoid all mistakes, or make the right decision every time. At my day job I run a meeting called the Sprint Retrospective, where we review the last two weeks and discuss what went well, and what didn’t… Before every retro I recite the following quote:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

— Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

At the time, given where my swing, mindset, and situation were, I hit the best shot that I could have. At the time, given where my knowledge and skills were, I did the best I could on that project. At the time, given the information and capabilities I possessed, I made the best decision I could have. What’s done is done. You learn, you let go, and you move forward.

At 15 I had big dreams. After years of being told I had a nice swing and golfing “talent”, I felt destined for the PGA frickin’ Tour baby. So to shoot anything above an 80 was unacceptable, and I made that very clear to both myself and myplaying partners. I’d slam my club, throw my hat, and generally huff around the course in a sour mood after any hole that threatened my pristine scorecard.

We all have teenage memories we’re not proud of, and this is mine. I ruined a lot of beautiful days with people I love because I took every round of golf so darn seriously. Golf wasn’t about having fun, it was about being “good” at it. I wanted to impress people with my scorecard, and have players young & old alike look up to me for my golfing prowess. I didn’t want the mark of an “average” golfer, I had to be a “great” golfer. And any score that wasn’t “great” was a direct blow to my feeling of self-worth.

Years later, after tearing up yet another “dismal” scorecard I sat down and thought about what playing poorly really meant for the rest of my life. I don’t play professionally, so it has no bearing on my ability to pay rent. I don’t gamble, so I don’t loose any money. Nobody’s going to genuinely look down on me or dislike me due to my (lack of) golfing ability, and if they do I question their value as company. Ultimately golf’s just a game, and the only person that really cares about my score is me. So I could either continue to be miserable 70% of the time I’m playing, never feeling like I’m good enough to have fun on the course, or I can accept how my score turns out and soak in that fact that I get to play a game I love.

Work “works” the same way. We can spend all our time single-mindedly chasing the brass ring, looking with jealousy at our Ferrari-owning neighbor, and contempt at our ‘92 Civic-owning neighbor (weird neighborhood, but you get the idea). We can put horrifyingly-long hours into work that we don’t find enjoyable or meaningful, for the sake of climbing the ladder and joining the country club set. We can push through suffering and drudgery for the sake of one day “making it”, and finally becoming happy.

But that “one day” never comes, and every setback on your way up feels like a massive blow to the breadbasket. With this mindset you never truly “make it”. Instead of a stairway to heaven you’re on a hamster-wheel of dissatisfaction, constantly telling yourself “one more promotion, one more bonus, one more award, then I’ll be happy”.

The quest for status and flash is ultimately just a game that you’ll never really “win”. Someone will always have a nicer car, or a bigger house, or a prettier yacht than you. While climbing the ladder can be fun, and I encourage it if it interests you (so long as you impart a net positive impact on the world), make sure you enjoy the sights and sounds on each rung. Given my work & writing habits I’m not in a position to give a hippy-dippy, “4 hours a week is enough to support yourself, man…” type of lecture. But I like my work, I like the people I work with, and I find a lot of meaning in what I do and the company I do it for. Being promoted one day sounds nice, but I’m not waiting for that day to be happy. Just like how I’m not waiting to break 80 again before I have fun on the course.

The “golf gods” are not benevolent overlords who guide you on a golden path towards salvation & birdies. They’re more like Greek gods. Moody, petty, and uncaring towards the plight of us mere golfing mortals. So for every miracle kick out of the trees or lucky bounce granted by these deities, golfers are handed five bad breaks, poor bounces, and instances of plain rotten luck.

I’ve had balls driven to the middle of the fairway go completely AWOL, shots to the middle of the green slowly trickle off the back (or front) edge, and putts tracking towards the middle of the hole suddenly avert course, perform a perfect 360 around the lip, and pop out. Beautiful drives end up in divots, beautiful chips end up 30 feet short, and beautiful strikes hit the 150yd marker square on.

The point is, golf can seem unfair sometimes. But getting angry doesn’t chang that. The only thing you can do is plan & play the next shot as well as you can. Accept the bad break, make the most of it, and move on.

Sometimes life sucks. Trees fall on cars, rain falls on wedding days, and projects that you’ve sunk your heart, soul, and countless late nights into don’t pan out. You could dwell on it. Kick the dirt around. Walk in a circle while you curse up a storm. But where does that leave you? Someone with dirty shoes and the same problems you had before.

Instead of dwelling on these bad breaks, golf’s (slowly) taught me to accept their existence, see if there’s anything I can learn from them, and make the best of the current situation. Having a victim complex can feel satisfying for a short time, but it’s net effect on your life will always be negative. When your only reaction to setbacks is to blame the rest of the world, the world will never suddenly be “on your side”, and you’ll spend your life in a bitter pit of unhappiness.

Please Note: There are situations where this mindset isn’t enough. When people are faced with systematic issues, as members of a free country we must speak up about the inherent unfairness they experience. We must recognize that climbing ladders is a lot harder for people who’re missing rungs and were born with a 50-lb backpack on their shoulders. As an advanced society we must all work to repair those rungs and remove those oh-so-heavy backpacks.

Back in those high school days, I used to shape the ball around trees, fire irons at pins with glee, and write par after par on my scorecard. With time my skills have atrophied, and now I’m just happy to put the ball in the fairway, hit the green, and take anything less than four putts. Why?

The way I see it, we all have a certain amount of time on this world, and how we allocate that time determines what we get good at, and to what degree.

While working at an alumni event my friend asked Alex Kipman, the IPO Foundation’s 2012 Inventor of the Year and head of Microsoft’s Kinect development, how a 20 year-old college kid grows to be as successful as Mr. Kipman’s been.

His response?: Spend 16 hours a day in the computer lab.

The truth is, most of us don’t want to spend 16 hours a day in the computer lab, or on the golf course. We want some sort of balance to add variety and prevent burnout. That’s a perfectly satisfying life choice, if we accept that we won’t become the best in the world at any one thing as a result.

As a teenager I put a lot of time into my golf game, and as a result I spent less time going on dates, playing video games, and studying (sorry mom). But with time my priorities have shifted. Kickstarting my career, writing, reading, running, and generally keeping my adult life together have all become important, meaning I balance my time between all these activities. Therefore I can hope to get good at all of them, but I know that I’ll never be truly great at any of them. This balance is a choice I’ve made, based on what brings me happiness and keeps me from burning out.

Each of us chooses where to allocate our time. Each choice comes with pros & cons. I’ve come to accept my rapidly deteriorating golf skills, since I know I’m improving in a variety of other areas & pursuits.

I’ve never been the longest hitter. Instead of the booming 280-yard drives I’ve seen playing partners launch, I tend to poke it 230-yards to the middle of the fairway. Speaking as a dumb, testosterone-fueled man, ball go far is good (grunt grunt grunt), so it can be discouraging to see someone else’s ball fly 60 yards past mine. But golf’s a funny sport. A beautiful 300 yard drive can still yield a double bogey thanks to a duffed iron shot or poor short game skills. I’ve beaten many a playing partner through short drives and boring, conservative play.

The trick is to not get discouraged, and not let your playing partner coax you into a playing style that doesn’t suit you. It’s tempting to swing a little bit harder to bridge the distance gap, but if overswinging books your ball on a direct flight to the woods, you’re better off keeping your drives short & straight. You can still win matches through good iron play and an unflappable short game. Keep your head down, play your own game, and remember that the scorecard contains no pictures. What matters is the score, not how you got to it.

Everyone has their own definition of success, and their own unique path towards achieving it. Time and time again you’ll encounter geniuses, trust-fund kids, and naturals whose assent to the apex of their field seemed easy. If your goals revolve around mimicking and beating these people at their own game, not only are you in for a long uphill climb, but you risk ignoring the unique traits that prime you for your own form of success. Instead find a way to leverage what truly interests you, and use your signature mix of talents, experience, and capabilities to be successful in the pursuit you choose.

The secret to longer golf shots surprises most people. One would think that to hit the ball further, you have to swing harder, gritting your teeth and putting more raw muscle into your swing. While this may cause the ball to fly a little farther, you’ll be shocked to see others pound longer drives with seemingly effortless swings.

How do they do this? They’re efficient, and focus their force where it really matters. By swinging within their means these golfers keep each part of their body in-sync, allowing gravity, momentum, and simple mechanics to do the work for them, accelerating the clubhead until point of contact. They don’t burn excess energy or introduce excess movements that complicate their swing and make mistakes likely.

Whether it’s through watching my father, the hanging specter of self doubt, or a little of both, I’ve internalized the need for hard work & putting the hours in.

Whenever I start a new project, job, or venture, I assume that I’m at a disadvantage. There are other people who were born naturally talented, and have years of experience in this pursuit. To lessen the skill-deficit I have to work harder, longer, and faster than everybody else, to prove to both myself and others that I’m capable and worthy of the responsibility given. While this leads me to work hard, I can also get lost in the desire to prove myself, accumulating stress while spinning my wheels over simple, worthless problems, finally burning myself out over work that doesn’t provide much value.

While hard work is important to success, proper allocation of said hard work is more important.

“ I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” -Bill Gates

There’s a certain amount of pride some of us feel when we work 60+ hour weeks. But instead of measuring a week by hours worked, we should measure the week by value provided. I could work really hard and spend hours moving a pile of sand from one side of my apartment to the other with tweezers, but this doesn’t provide much value to myself or anyone else, and there were much more efficient ways to accomplish the same task.

By properly prioritizing all work and finding the easiest way to properly complete it, not only can I provide more value to my end-users, co-workers, and myself, but I can finish what’s important while maintaining proper balance in my life.

I tend to swing too fast. It may be from nerves or watching too many pro swings, but when my game starts getting messy, I rush through my golf swing. Even worse, I over-complicate things by building technique upon technique and overthinking my entire approach to golf, until I can barely make contact with the darn ball.

When my game starts going south, instead of swinging faster and trying another new movement, I always benefit from slowing down, and returning to basics. A slow, relaxed swing with as few moving parts as possible always yields good strikes. After a few good shots my confidence is back, and I’m ready to attack the course once again.

Our big, smart, complex brains allowed us to rise above the kill-or-be-killed lives of most animals. It’s our greatest asset, attribute, and ally. But sometimes we get lost in that electo-chemical soup, and over-complicate things. Small problems become mountains, simple solutions turn complex, and easy questions yield impossible answers.

A true flash of brilliance occurs when we realize we’re over-complicating something, step back, and review the basics of whatever we’re pondering.

For many wannabe high-achievers, we bow to the alter of busyness. We’ve mastered the art of checking Slack at the supermarket, and email at the urinal. The more buried we are in “work mode”, the more productive we feel. But by staying underground in this mire of busy-work, we can forget to look at the big picture. Whenever we feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with demand, it’s a sign that we should slow down, return to basics, and consider which tasks provide genuine value, vs. which ones just waste our time.

Besides watching pros on tv, learning from my dad, and a few lessons, I’m mostly a self-taught golfer. This has it’s drawbacks. Sometimes I don’t realize simple, better ways to grip the club or position the ball in my stance until a third-party observes & coaches me.

But it’s also had it’s advantages. Since I’ve built my own swing from the bottom-up, I know it like the back of my hand. Therefore as soon as I start mis-hitting the ball, I’m able to understand my problem, diagnose the root cause, and apply a solution. Being self-taught has exercised my “swing awareness”.

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, starts with Self-Awareness for a reason. When we’re in a stressful situation or feel like our lives are out of whack, our first step should be to understand where we are emotionally. By saying “I feel angry because — “, or “I feel stressed because — “, we can start to pick apart why we really feel angry or stressed. Only once we understand the root cause can we develop a genuine antidote.

I’ll admit it, I’m a pacifist. I’ll gladly take a smaller slice of pie for the sake of peace & harmony. And while this means I get along with almost anyone, it also means I don’t fight to satisfy my own needs, instead yielding to the needs of others. I don’t always “get what’s mine”.

The one time I did “get what’s mine” was in 2012, during a high school golf match in Cornwall, NY. I was 2 down, and had just dunked a beautiful fairway wood-shot straight into a pond protecting the green. To say I was a bit miffed is a profound understatement.

In the spot where I needed to drop a new ball (with a 1 stoke penalty) stood a big, fat, muscular, mean-looking goose. Geese have a reputation for being aggressive, and the geese at Storm King Golf Club in Cornwall, NY were especially prone to lashing out. As I approached, this goose looked me up & down, as if to say “this is my turf, the ^&%$ you gonna do?”. But I had a chip on my shoulder, and a solid steel 38" 5-iron in my hands. I held the club out as I slowly walked towards the goose, attempting to make myself as big, mean-looking, and business-like as possible. I would have never actually hit the goose with my club, but my feathered foe didn’t need to know that. After a few seconds of staring each other down like cowboys in the western sun, the goose slowly started retreating, walking into the pond as it occasionally glanced back at me, as if to say “you know this means war, right?”. After that drama I dropped a golf ball, bogeyed the hole, and went on to win the match. 7 years later I still sleep with my 5-iron next to the bed, for the day that goose finds me.

With all this striving for a longer drive, better iron game, and lower handicap, it’s easy to forget the reasons why I fell in love with golf in the first place. Hitting the range, training, and striving to achieve a new goal is always fun, and tickles the self-improvement compartment of my brain to no end. But sometimes that drive becomes all-encompassing. Sometimes that desire to improve causes me to become so future-focused that I never actually enjoy my time on the course.

Sometimes, to get away from the drills, handicap fluctuations, and Golf-Digest tips, I just need to tear up my scorecard, throw the pieces in the trash, and play golf for the sake of playing golf. Relax, feel the sun on my skin, and play each shot one at a time. Get away from work, bills, adult responsibilities, and the desire to “measure up” to my own expectations, and live purely in the moment for once.

Working hard, with a definitive purpose in mind, can be incredibly rewarding. Whether our purpose is to serve customers, climb the ladder, or just improve ourselves as people, putting our heads down & the hours in for a greater goal can provide it’s own brand of satisfaction.

But the never-ceasing pursuit of a large-scale goal can wear us down. No matter how strong our convictions or clear our vision, we all need time away from this goal-chasing and vision-realization. We need downtime with no judgments or expectations. We need space to rediscover the magic in simple moments with no greater purpose, and feel joy for the sole sake of feeling joy. Life isn’t a competition, or a hero’s journey, it’s just life. The best we can do is find purpose in our pursuit of goals, while finding joy in the little moments in-between.

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