The Angry Birds Theory of Success

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1.

Of all the profound mysteries about talent development, here’s one that might be the most mysterious: Why do underdogs succeed so often?

Because they do. Look at the biggest success stories in business, academics, sports, music. An unusually high percentage started out as hopeless longshots — from Shakespeare to Apple computer to the 1969 Mets.

The point is that we all live in a world where underdogs win all the time. They succeed with such clocklike regularity that they pose a fascinating question: what are we missing here? Are the underdogs merely getting lucky? Or are there subtle, powerful advantages — psychological, social, tactical advantages — to being an underdog?

Here’s the question: what if underdogs aren’t really underdogs? What if they’re really the overdogs?

2.

I recently had the privilege of attending the U.S. Soccer Player Development Summit at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The meeting was really cool and inspiring — the kind of gathering where a lot of super-smart, committed people come together for their Kennedy Moon Shot moment — the time when they point their compass at some distant goal (in this case, a World Cup victory) and get to work.

On paper, U.S. soccer fits the classic definition of an underdog. American players, while athletic and tactically smart, are not as technically skilled as top players in other countries. As U.S. Youth Technical Director and former U.S. team captain Claudio Reyna pointed out, when you compile a list of the top 100 world players, you will include precisely zero American players.

One of the problems, I think, is that while American soccer is in fact a huge underdog, the players and coaches don’t live the life of an underdog. They don’t feel like underdogs.

Picture the world from a young American player’s point of view. They are born into the middle class. When they are young, they are identified as a promising talent. Parents love and admire them. They make all the best travel teams. The World Cup is a distant abstraction — the real goal is success in their town, state, region. Their life is a steady climb of success and fulfillment, and the cherry on top comes on the big day: when they make the national team and put on the jersey.

Compare that to the story of a European or South American kid, for whom soccer is not a sport, but something closer to a religion. Who grows up seeing every person he knows weeping/rejoicing/freaking out every four years at the World Cup. Who dreams nightly of hoisting that trophy, of being that hero.

The problem U.S. Soccer faces isn’t structural — it’s narrative. Like a lot of us, they are Davids who are living in a world that treats them like Goliaths. They’re missing out on all the psychological advantages of being an underdog.

So the real question isn’t about talent. It’s about, how something bigger and more universal: why is that David story so powerful? And how do we figure out how to plug into it?

3.

While I was thinking about all this David/Goliath stuff, I started playing Angry Birds for the first time. If you don’t know the game, check it out. On second thought, don’t, because it’s highly addictive.

(The game works like this: you use a touch-screen slingshot to launch birds at well-defended green pigs who’ve stolen the birds’ golden eggs. It’s an echo of David and Goliath, if Goliath were a smug green pig.)

So why is this game so fun and addictive?  Four things:

  • 1) You are targeting a huge, meaningful, distant goal. (Those golden eggs!)
  • 2) You are attacking a superior, well-defended force who stands between you and your goal.
  • 3) You have the freedom to innovate and experiment — to pick different angles, strategies, tactics.
  • 4) You bond. Your birds sacrifice for each other, work together, cheer when something good happens.

I’d like to argue that the reason you put so much energy into Angry Birds is the same reason that underdogs work so hard and win so often. Being an underdog isn’t about merely getting lucky — rather, it’s about tapping into the psychological and social advantages that are built into the underdog story. Aggression. Purpose. Innovation. Social ties. Being an underdog is the equivalent of getting a daily dose high-octane fuel.

(To illustrate this point, imagine if the game were reversed and instead of playing as the Angry Birds, you were forced to play as the Smug Green Pigs, guarding the golden eggs. Would it be any fun? Would you be inclined to put a lot of energy and thought into the game?)

4.

So what do we do to tap into the underdog engine? We could start with three basic questions:

  • 1) What’s the Giant Goal — the ultimate, golden-egg target?
  • 2) Who’s Goliath? Who’s standing in your way? Who thinks you can’t do it?
  • 3) What innovations can you use? Remember, you are on the attack, not the defense.
  • 4) Who is with you on this journey — what connections exist, and how can you strengthen those?

The truth is, it’s really difficult to succeed in this world, and if you’re lucky enough to succeed, it’s even more difficult to keep it up. In the largest sense, we are all underdogs. Finding a way to express and communicate the fundamental truth of that situation seems to me to be one of the most important thing a group could do for itself.

So the real question is, What’s your story?


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17 Responses to “The Angry Birds Theory of Success”

  1. Rod Roth says:

    Not the only path to greatness, but it’s amazing how often it’s true. Michael Jordan, John Elway and Drew Breeze come to mind. My story is one of being a work in progress. My mantra is what Jim Stockdale said: “Confront the brutal facts of your current reality, but never doubt that you will prevail.”

  2. Garnet says:

    This is interesting largely because I’m not sure I agree. To build skill we have to know what it is that is generating the desired result. There are many things that are present during their development, but it doesn’t mean they all have the same, or any, value.

    Brazil is not an underdog in soccer, yet dominates, nor Canada in Hockey, Ethiopia in running, NZ in Rugby etc. They seem to be more a result of the elements you laid out in your book; passion, time and training methods.

    The interesting thing to me is to know the hierarchy of value in the attitudes, environment and training methods so we can know where best to focus our limited time and energy.

    Always look forward to you blog, keep up the good work.

  3. Ted says:

    I think the gist is that a poor kid in Brazil considers himself an underdog. Even though he is the overdog compared to some coddled kid in the burbs. Kid from Brazil perceives himself as the underdog and that perception is more important. If you believe you are fighting Goliath, you actually are fighting Goliath.

    This all seems to link back to the blog post about training in less than desirable conditions/facilities.

  4. Casey Wheel says:

    Daniel,

    Great post. Could you please email me if you get this. I think I have a new type of talent-bed that would interest you greatly. I am observer of development and this place just blew me away. And it’s in San Diego (nice weather!)

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hey Garnet — really good questions — and I think Ted puts it pretty well when he says it’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s all about the set of beliefs behind the kid — and, in a larger sense, behind a culture.

    Which makes the job of the U.S. Soccer folks challenging — how do you change that? Or is there a way to cultivate/take advantage of little microcultures?

  6. Jeff Plumb says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Very good article. I was a good Table Tennis player in Australia and you are exactly right, the end goal is just to represent your country. And the sport is geared towards this goal rather than something bigger. Kids from Europe or Asia have a completely different perspective. For them Table Tennis is a way of life and they know that it is difficult to become World Champion but they also know it is possible.

    It is an interesting question whether you can cultivate a set of beliefs with a small number of people. I think it is definitely possible. Sweden has a relatively small population and around the same number of Table Tennis players as Australia, yet they dominated World Table Tennis in the late eighties and into the nineties so it must be possible.

  7. Kevin Laux says:

    Hi Daniel,
    I thought this post was spot on when it comes to US Soccer. As a college coach and youth coach I see this all the time. If kids have any ambitions to be good players, it typically is focused on getting a college scholarship, which in today’s soccer world, is a prospects last chance of making it to the pros. Or it’s focused on becoming the next Landon Donovan, which is simply not good enough.
    I certainly think you can cultivate a set of beliefs within a small number of people. That is part of the art of coaching and you have several examples in The Talent Code. For US Soccer, we need to start promoting the desire to be the first US world class soccer player. We also need to figure out a way to have our kids train more. I read an article by US Youth Soccer that began by introducing and citing the 10,000 hour rule but culminated by listing their recommended training to match ratios by age an how many training sessions per week kids should have. I did the math…7,000 hours short of the 10,000 necessary to be the next Messi or Ronaldo! It was as if they forgot what they started the article with!!!

  8. Bryce says:

    So, if Ted is right (and I think he is), it seems to me that US Soccer needs to make more of a concerted effort to take soccer from the suburbs to the streets. Is this happening and I’m just not seeing it?

  9. Divya says:

    Great Blog post. I came across this from my teacher talking about your book “The Talent Code” today in class & it truly got me interested. Being a high school student I think it’s very important learning about these type of things at early age. I will continue to read your blog & most likely read your books. BTW I love SOCCER, so this blog post really matches me. Thank you.

  10. Mark says:

    Regarding Bryce’s post on taking soccer to the streets – it won’t happen. Soccer is a mid / upper mid class sport in USA (and Canada) whereas it is a street sport in most of the rest of the world. Basketball is far more accessible to people of limited means and thats why its so huge as a sport in the USA. Too bad for soccer.

  11. Steve says:

    Thanks for the Blog DC.

    Yes, in centuries gone past there was the Olympics and games played amongst tribes because in life there is nothing like a good distraction or a challenge at the very least. Back in the day surviving was a challenge unto it self ! how things have changed, hence our detailed introspection to make sense of it all !

    I tend to think though we have made the moments of glory way to important. Glory is a passing moment after all !

    I am 37yrs of age, live in Australia and married with our ten year old daughter.

    I coach our daughters soccer team and it is a fascinating process observing the wants and needs of the parents and the kids !

    We happen to have a team that could win every game if we played by the strategy that most helps us to win. We have two girls who kick the ball further then any one else in the comp and 3 great finishers. The strategy is obvious already if you want to win !

    We choose not to because fun and equal opportunity to develop confidence I believe the fairest culture and goal for kids at a local level. If it was rep level different story and different expectation.

    So to apply your steps of analysis:

    1) What’s the Giant Goal — the ultimate, golden-egg target? That the kids are in a team where they feel they have equal opportunity to develop their confidence and ability as players and have fun !

    2) Who’s Goliath? Who’s standing in your way? Who thinks you can’t do it? The parents own pre conceptions of wanting to win not loose !

    3) What innovations can you use? Remember, you are on the attack, not the defense. I invest in getting the parents on board as much as the kids………if you dont do it every week the grim reeper of winning at all costs raises its ugly head !

    4) Who is with you on this journey — what connections exist, and how can you strengthen those? as mentioned in your book 6 times more touches and learning to play one touch football is more important then winning just now………

    :)

  12. Steve says:

    I meant to say after I walked away from my post and considered the starting point of the article ie why do underdogs often succeed?

    I couldnt help but thinking…….”succeed at what”?

    ie what are the under dogs truly chasing? or the over dogs for that matter !

    happiness?
    achievement?
    fame?
    glory?

  13. Dave says:

    Messi and Ronaldo weren’t developed by a country. They were developed by a club. U.S. Soccer can’t develop players. It’s up to MLS clubs to find and develop players before they pick up the bad habits of the U.S. Youth System and the American soccer mom mentality where winning is more important than development. Then they are lost and end up lifeless or thuggish players coming out of college. Slowly it is happening as almost all MLS teams now have academies and youth systems. Not surprisingly many of these youth players are Hispanic or ethnic. The underdog.

  14. Oliver Chettle says:

    The European country that produces the most good players per capita is probably the Netherlands, where football is predominantly middle class. Germany and the Scandinavian country are also largely free of class prejudice, anti-middle class prejudice that is, and are good at youth development. In England, where football is completely proletarian in culture and thus in personnel, there is a dearth of success relative to the passion of the population and the resources expanded.

    So spare us the class prejudice. All that is needed for success is a lot of training hours under the supervision of good coaches. Furthermore, I would argue that relative to its massive population, Brazil isn’t actually particularly good at football. If the Netherlands had two hundred million people, it would probably have won almost every World Cup.

  15. This is an eye opening article and thank you for the sharing. attaining success and keeping it is the hard portion of the life and it is very easy for someone and tough for the rest

  16. Tracy says:

    Um … what about the US Women’s National Team?

  17. Alex says:

    Women don’t play soccer in Brazil. Still Marta was born.

    Close to every Brazilian has contact with soccer and there are a lot of talented kids everywhere. The great players come pretty much all from the same region though.

    Same with Martial Artists that used to come all from the same gym at Pride or the same family in the case of UFC.

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