Something you might not have known about me: I’m a volleyball player.
Well, at least I was when my knees were better, and my teenage body could sustain on nothing but McDonald’s, Pizza, and Bagels like every other New York City kid.
At a point, I was competitive, played in a few championships, lots of beach tournaments, etc.
One year, I tried out for a club coached by a local legend named Merlin. This was a turning point for my skill development, and I vividly remember why.
He said something that has rattled around my brain for the roughly two and a half decades since I heard it: “Exaggerate the basics of your mechanics. Do it as if you’re mocking yourself about how you’re supposed to do it.”
Let me set the scene a bit more. When you’re first starting a sport, you’re learning a lot and getting drilled on basic mechanics. But by the time you get to the intermediate skill level, some of those basics feel less exciting than the new fun stuff your body can do. Fancy attacks, cool new plays, tricky stuff, and maybe you start phoning in the things you learned early on.
Then here I am, trying out for a competitive travel team, and this absolute legend is telling me to bend my f’n knees again.
Yeah, dude, I know how to bend my knees… Or so I thought!
Watching back video we took during the tryout showed that I was barely doing anything at all. He had me run it back and exaggerate everything I learned in year one; bending as low as possible, waiting for the ball, and swinging my arms on my approach. “Make it look funny,” he said.
This idea of drilling the basics even as you master your craft is foundational to excellence. In volleyball its your footwork, approach, and other physical mechanics. In tech, a deep understanding of programming principles allows you to learn new programming languages more easily. Strong knowledge of design fundamentals enables you to design for new platforms and devices.
Excellent, Matt. How does this Apply to Me?
I’m getting there. Stay with me.
The Paradox of Knowledge and Expertise
Feeling more experienced or knowledgeable about a subject, while energizing and validating, can lead to a flurry of new thoughts in opinions, an emphasis on “what’s next”, and feeling like the basics are for the amateurs.
Then you meet an expert, and they shine a light for you. They’ll tell you they focus on fundamentals more than anything else. This is the paradox. Ending up right where you started anyway.
Let’s look at infosec: I’ve spent a lot of time researching malware and exploit development. I’ve also spent years developing novel techniques to beat defenses. I’ve even spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on complex behavior analytics, machine learning, anomaly detection, Kubernetes sidecar monitoring, EDR (or XDR), and so on.
Do you know how companies I’ve worked for have gotten popped? Fucking phishing.
|Verizon DBIR 2023 - Phishing|
It’s getting to the point that I genuinely believe an entire security budget is overkill until phishing and the use of stolen creds are solved problems. Here is a thread I wrote explaining some techniques to make your organization harder to phish - Twitter Thread
Our industry is guilty of feeding into this paradox. We have the most exciting new tech. The most modern systems. We have a solution for nearly every problem. A start-up for everything under the sun. But we haven’t figured out how to be proficient where it really counts. None of that advanced technology matters if you continue to fail the basics.
We’ve all heard “practice makes perfect” at some point. I had a coach correct that for me, though. They said: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Mature teams have a crucial difference that allows them to avoid bad practices and bad habits: Systems. Everything that will be done repeatedly is done in a system and automated as much as possible, or at least with big heavy guardrails in place.
Imagine you went into a McDonald’s, and the burger being made depended on the skill of the particular chef on shift when you walked in. Instead, you can get a Big Mac on every corner of Earth, and it’ll be virtually the same experience.
The Power of Consistency
In the pursuit of not losing sight of the basics lies a key principle: consistency in practice and effort.
Focus on mastering fundamental skills and practices, executing them flawlessly every single time. It could mean dedicating extra time to code reviews and ensuring strict adherence to your team’s style guide.
Perhaps, it’s creating design systems that ensure uniformity across all your products or establishing comprehensive project management processes for all endeavors, big or small.
When you build the basics into repeatable systems, you unlock the potential for extraordinary achievements.
Consistency is crucial in tech, whether you’re coding, designing, or managing projects.
Consistent code is easier to read, understand, and maintain.
Consistent design leads to a better user experience.
Consistent project management ensures timely and budget-friendly project completions.
Consistency matters somewhere else too.
Where exaggerating the basics matters most
It’s no secret that I’ve been managing depression and anxiety for most of my adult life. My desire to be well has led me to try various therapies and strategies, and coping skills. If there’s new research out there, you bet I’m swallowing it up. I’ve studied the life-changing impact of psychedelics, tried clinician-facilitated ketamine, taken anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds, gone to therapy, meditated, and other protocols to reduce the intensity and frequency of my mental health issues.
Hear me when I say this, none of that works if I’m not also staying focused on my basic health. If I’m not managing my sleep, getting enough water, exercising, or eating relatively healthy, those other methods just can’t work. In order for any of those special treatments and new methodologies to be effective, the foundation has to be set.
Maybe this is really why that phrase lives rent-free in my brain. Because I have just experienced it to be true too many times and in various ways. Hell, even in my relationships. When my wife and I get out of sync, we usually realize we haven’t prioritized something really simple. We got distracted by travel plans, house projects, and school drop-offs and forgot to communicate and spend quality time just the two of us. Exaggerate the basics. Do what you learned early on, and try not to forget how critical they were to your development. They will ALWAYS matter.
Are you out of sync somewhere in your life? Have you checked in on the basics? Have you tightened up in the areas that are fundamental to your sport, job, relationship, or mental health? If not, consider this your opportunity to check-in. I’ll be doing the same routine checks right along with you.