The Depth of Durability

Woody Allen is credited with saying something to the effect of “80% of life is showing up.” Delivering ourselves seems to be the starting point for becoming successful. There’s a saying in sports circles that the number one ability is availability. The more skilled we are, the more talented, the more needed we are, the more that the single greatest success factor becomes our availability. Your presence is your potence. Are you missed if you’re not there? Do others know if you’re a no show? If you’re missed when you’re not there, that’s a good sign than you are needed. An extension of availability is being reliable. It’s showing up not just once, but over and over again. Showing up singly is something but sustaining your presence perpetually is real power. Being reliable is an asset. It’s allowing others to affirmatively answer about you the question, “Can I count on you?”

A common characteristic amongst the greatest of all time, the GOATs of a domain, and other elite performers is the ability to stay strong for a long time. Durability is the deepest differentiator between one hit wonders and GOATs.

Congratulations to Jeff Homynyk and his team at MHK Insurance in Edmonton on celebrating 110 years in business. Staying power is the result of being reliable, available, and durable. Well done on being RAD.

Consider the actor Nicholas Cage. He’s been making movies since his teens. It’s been over forty years. In some circles he’s considered the hardest worker in Hollywood. Cage has acted in movies that have spanned five decades. From the 80s through to the present, he’s had an abundance of on-screen presence. Some movies have hit, and others have bombed, but through it all Cage continues to perform. At 58, he shows no signs of slowing down.

In the sport of Endurocross, British rider, Graham Jarvis continues to set the standard for the fledgling sport. At age 47, he’s the granddaddy of athletes and competes with men less than half his age. He’s not just a participant but a predictable performer in the sport year after year. He’s won the Red Bull Romaniacs race six times as well as the Superbowl of Endurocross, the Erzberg Rodeo Red Bull Hare Scramble five times. He continues to compete at a high level.

The average career length in the NHL, for example, is five years. Only 25% of players play 12 years or more. Yet, there are some players, like Andrew Cogliano, who recently won the Stanley Cup playing with the Colorado Avalanche competing in his sixteenth season in the league that defy these averages. In that time, he played a streak of 830 consecutive games putting him in an elite group of which he has the fourth longest consecutive game streak in the league’s history. A streak which was only broken because of a suspension.

Fighting would seem to be a profession in which most careers are short lived. It’s a physically brutal sport that takes its toll. The mark of durability of the pugilist is seen in comparing the number of professional fights in a career relative to a fighter’s age. Fighters that have more professional fights than years on earth reflect durability. They are rare exceptions. Glover Texeira, light heavyweight legend and former Champion defended his belt at UFC 275. He entered the Octagon at 42 years old having been there professionally 40 times prior. Recently retired, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, ended his fighting career at UFC 276. He leaves the sport at the age of 39 having fought in over fifty professional fights.

In Major League Baseball, there’s Cal Ripken Jr. who set the standard for durability. His durability earned him the nickname “The Iron Man.” He played 21 seasons in the big leagues, all for a single team, the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken owns the consecutive games played record for MLB having played 2,632 games in a row. He not only played a lot of games, he played at a high level earning a spot on his league’s All Star team 19 times.

Chris Bosh, NBA player, wrote Letters to a Young Athlete. The value of durability became clear to Bosh when he was traded from Toronto to Miami where he had the opportunity to play several seasons with LeBron James. The experience inspired a chapter in Bosh’s book titled, Take Care of Yourself. James was the marquis, franchise player, of their team. Bosh had a front row seat to the preparation that James brought to his game. Bosh was impressed by the lengths to which James and other veterans with career longevity went to in order to protect their bodies. It wasn’t just basketball skills that were worked on but recognizing that their body was their machine and for them to perform it had to last. The attention spent on little things like stretching and recovery was substantial. Hours each day spent outside of practice, games, and travel were devoted to caring for and maintaining their bodies. Bosh observed, “The true greats—the ones who sustain greatness year after year, the LeBrons and the Tom Bradys—put in something extra… They got me to see that my body was my asset…. Your body is your greatest asset… You have to protect it. You have to invest in it. If you don’t, the value of that asset is guaranteed to decline over time.” Bosh began to take pride in doing the little things to take care of himself. He relied on seeing what others did to guide him. He saw the work not as daunting, but a responsibility to himself and his team. Bosh writes, “The important thing to realize about taking care of yourself is that it’s something no one else can do for you, because no one else has the stake in it that you do… no one is as invested in your long-term durability as you are yourself.” Bosh concludes, “Sleeping right. Eating right. Exercising. Those investments in yourself don’t stop paying off when you stop playing the game—they will pay dividends for your whole life. So put that work into yourself, and be proud of it. None of it is ever wasted.”

The dean of durability, the person that embodies the definition of perennial performer as Bosh noted, is NFL quarterback legend, Tom Brady. He’s unequivocally the GOAT of his domain across dimensions. His recent retirement was more like a recess as he has announced he will come back to play more. He’s still playing after completing 23 seasons in the league. During that time, he’s been to an incredible nine Super Bowls winning six of them. He’s been the league’s MVP three times. He owns virtually all quarterback records including the number of passing yards, touchdown passes, games started, pro-bowl selections, and number of completions. Incredibly, during this longevity he’s never once had a losing season. He owns the most regular season wins, playoff wins, and Super Bowl MVP awards. The list of accolades could go on and on. Brady attributes much of his durability to his training and nutrition focus as he aged in his NFL career.

At some point all these leaders of longevity decided that they wanted to perpetuate their participation at a high level. To leave a legacy, they needed to perform at a high level for not just a season, but many seasons. As a result, high performers aren’t willing to let themselves be chewed up and spit out in order to grind out the last ounce of performance today. Instead, there seems to be more attention being paid to preventive maintenance by professional athletes today than in the past. It may be the basis of why some athletes today are enjoying careers spanning periods much longer than historical averages. As we rise through each level in our domain and the demands of our profession increase, our health and fitness become a bigger component than domain specific skills to our performances. It’s this complete commitment to physical and mental development year-round that is helping high performers increase the reliability of their availability and represents durability when it counts. Injuries are an insult to high performers. Health is not just a key success factor, but the key factor. All our skill, competence, commitment, knowledge, physical capability, experience, etc. are all useless where we aren’t able to show up and participate.

The time horizon of talent is long term. Those that see themselves doing something for a long time have a distinct advantage over others in terms of the attention and persistence they bring. Give yourself a chance (GYAC) and take care of yourself. It’s nice to TYS, take yourself seriously to stay in the game. Our perspective for our participation has been shown to be a substantial contributor to skill development. In the late 90’s a researcher sought an answer to why some children learned faster than others when it came to music lessons. Several hundred students were studied from when they were seven years old prior to picking a musical instrument to play all the way through when they graduated high school. Along the way the children were interviewed, given various tests, had videos of their practice sessions made, and had their abilities objectively assessed. The researchers saw the wide variety of performance outcomes and sought to analyze their data in a way that would help them understand what the cause of the differing abilities was. They looked at IQ, math skills, income level of parents, hearing ability, and more. None of these explained the differences in performance. Somehow the researchers stumbled across a single question from the earliest interview conducted. The answer offered to this question was strongly correlated to future musical ability in the children.

The first interview was done with the kids before they had even selected an instrument to learn. The key question was, “How long do you think you’ll play your new instrument?” Their responses were categorized into degrees of commitment, low, medium, or high. Those that had a sense that they would be making a long-term commitment to the instrument displayed the quickest progress and attained the highest levels of musical performance. This was the case when the researchers layered an additional factor into their analysis. The children were grouped by the amount of practice undertaken weekly. Again, they were separated into three groups of low, medium, or high volumes of practice. Those that had a long-term commitment, even with lower practice levels, achieved higher performance ability over time. Those that both had high levels of commitment coupled with high practice dramatically outperformed all other groups. They were the best by almost two and a half times relative to any other grouping. When practice times were held constant, those that were most committed outperformed their less committed peers by 400%. The results were stunning to researchers. The perspective of participation we bring can lead to a virtuous cycle that spurs commitment and capability.

Those that saw themselves doing this forever were more likely to stick with their studies. Whereas those that didn’t see themselves as musicians, but as forced to participate or as doing something to achieve credit, didn’t persist nearly as long. Reversing the lyrics of a Trooper classic song, those that are here for a long time, not a good time, are those that reflect commitment to their cause. This commitment is the fuel that fires their motivation over time. This perspective is the opposite of the chatter of our culture where immediate gratification and you deserve it are offered as salve for our souls. We’re told that “you only live once” or YOLO or Carpe Diem. We’re also bombarded with messages like “the present is a gift” and are told about “the power of now.” These all teach us that we should be focused on immediate gratification as opposed to sacrificing today for a prospective benefit tomorrow.

It’s not just individual actors and athletes that benefit from displaying durability. Also consider investors like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, the leaders of the firm Berkshire Hathaway. They stand in a league of their own when it comes to positive investment performance over decades. Berkshire Hathaway has delivered returns exceeding the market averages decade after decade for more than sixty years. This has put both Buffett and Munger amongst the richest men in the world for much of this time. Buffett has offered, “The basic ideas of investing are to look at stocks as business, use the market’s fluctuations to your advantage, and seek a margin of safety. That’s what Ben Graham taught us. A hundred years from now they will still be the cornerstones of investing.” Buffett believes in long term principles as being the root of his firm’s success. The third element is a key one in being able to both stay in the game and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Seeking a margin of safety is a strategic effort at developing durability. It’s less about making the right call all the time and more about working to be less wrong. It’s also what drives the decision to diversify in investing. It’s spreading risk so that we’re not exposed to one catastrophe. This philosophy has served Berkshire Hathaway well and is reflected in the kinds of businesses they own.

Businesses can develop durability as well. Public corporations that are part of the S&P 500 index in the US have had their lifespan trend downwards in recent decades. In the 1960’s, the average time on the index was over thirty years. By 2020, this average had dropped to just over twenty years. Amidst this, like our durable individuals, some companies can defy the odds. Companies like 3M, Boeing, Caterpillar, GE, IBM, and Pepsico have endured as part of the corporate culture for decades longer than the averages. Each of these companies has been a staple in North American commerce for well over 50 years. As impressive as these companies may seem there are a number of lesser-known companies that have stood the test of time for far longer. Japan is home to the handful of companies that are considered the longest running businesses in history. A construction company and three hotels are considered the four longest running businesses known. Each has a history that is well over 2,000 years old. That’s durability.

There’s a cultural difference that lies at the heart of strategies that separates some Asian enterprises from those in Europe and North America. The time horizon of strategic planning is a marked difference. Public companies in the West are focused on performance in the short-term. Quarterly revenues and earnings are what drive stock market expectations. Whereas, in Asia, many companies are built on strategies focused on plans covering decades if not generations. This single factor of the timeline considered in decision making substantially influences the type of decision made. The longer the time horizon considered, the more likely decisions are made for long term survival. This can be compared with making decisions based on the near term. If performance today is what matters most, then the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow are ignored. We’re willing to give up tomorrow in order to get something today.

Where our definition of success implies a longer time horizon, the importance of availability increases. If our definition of success is a moment, right now, then we willingly trade durability for intensity. We will exploit our efforts entirely in the moment. We happily trade tomorrow for today. Unfortunately, a focus on performance in the short term leads to a search for shortcuts instead of a commitment to the long term and embrace of slow and steady. The temptation to trade tomorrow for today creates a culture of cheating. PEDs or Performance Enhancing Drugs reflect the need for now. People consciously trade their future health to maximize the return on investment in their talent today. We’ll trade the consequences of tomorrow for a little gain today. However, those that are seeking extended excellence are striving for performance today and tomorrow. Staying in the game is as important as this game. Durability is about seeking peak performance over time as opposed to for one time. Devotees of durability are focused on staying in the game for as long a period as possible. Durability is about thinking beyond the moment. It’s about trying to win not just today’s battle, but tomorrow’s war. It’s about ensuring there’s a little something left in the tank to provide fuel for the future.

In our business strategy conversations even where we’re talking about planning for the next year or quarter can we keep in mind the longer-term consequences of our actions and the longer-term desired direction? Do we see our organization and our roles within it well into the future? Are we as focused on the legacy of the operation as we are the decisions of the day? If we ask ourselves, where do we see ourselves or our organization in the next 5, 10, 25 years, do we have an answer? How clear of a picture can we paint of the distant future? Do we see our involvement as an ongoing journey or are we looking for the exits? These are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves, our team members, and potential recruits to determine what type of commitment will be brought to the workplace. If we believe in the importance of durability, we’ll begin to look for ways to develop it as a value in our own efforts as well as to encourage it in those around us.

A way to stand out is to be RAD, Reliable, Available, and Durable. Those that show up consistently doing good work will be rewarded with greater responsibility. It’s the surest and shortest track to the top. It’s not 24/7/365. It’s not always available, always on. There’s a law of diminishing returns to effort that leads to burnout. Being durable is about being sustainably available. We do this by working to stay in the game by avoiding catastrophes, reducing wild risk taking, protecting our core assets, and developing a long-term perspective. Build the base. Construct your chassis. Develop durability. Focus on the fundamentals. As true as all these things are true in sport, so, too, are they for each of us as individuals and for our organizations.