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Aim Left – Love Your Work, Episode 262

August 19 2021 – 07:30am

It’s 1997, and Tiger Woods is in a sudden death playoff, against Tom Lehman.

Lehman shoots first, on a par three, and hits his ball into the water.

Now Tiger’s up, and this is Tiger’s tournament to lose. All he has to do is hit a safe shot, far away from the hole, and far away from the water.

But that’s not what he does.

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An aggressive and dangerous play

The hole is way on the left side of the green, near the water. There’s water short, and there’s water left – where Tom Lehman’s shot went. The smart play is just hit the ball onto the green, way right of the hole, so there’s no chance it goes in the water. Then Tiger can putt twice, for par, and win the tournament.

Tiger hits his shot, watches with anticipation as it flies through the air – and almost goes directly into the hole. It’s eight inches away. He just won the tournament.

The crowd goes wild, meanwhile, the announcers are trying to figure out why Tiger would make a play like that. Why shoot directly at the hole, when there’s water all around? If he had made the slightest error, Tiger would have tied Lehman, and extended the playoff to the next hole.

The announcers say, Well he’s 21 years old. He’s aggressive. Some of you are no doubt thinking, Why would he make a play like that? Because he’s Tiger Woods, that’s why.

Perfection comes from imperfection

I recently showed my partner a career highlights video of Tiger Woods. She had never heard of him, and had never seen golf (remember, she’s Colombian). By the end of the video, she was convinced Tiger Woods was a witch, who could magically conjure a ball into a hole from 200 yards away. Because that’s what she saw. Over and over, this guy swinging, then a tiny ball flying through the air for several seconds, and jumping and spinning and rolling into a tiny hole.

When we see an expert in any field, we marvel at what they’re able to accomplish. When we compare our own skills, we can’t help but feel insignificant.

But sometimes, what seems like perfection is someone not striving for perfection, but instead working cleverly with their imperfections.

Several years after this playoff, where Tiger Woods made this bold play. He re-lived it in his book. He explained that he was very much aware all he had to do was hit the green – to play safely away from the water. In fact, that’s exactly what he did.

When you’re missing right, aim left

Yes, Tiger’s ball almost went in the hole, but that’s not where he was aiming. Besides knowing the smart strategy in this playoff situation, Tiger had noticed something during his warm-up before the playoff: His shots tended to go left. Like Tom Lehman, Tiger had pulled his ball to the left, but because Tiger was aiming to the right, he almost had a hole-in-one.

This is hard to process for many who don’t play golf – indeed many who do play golf. How can the greatest golfer who ever lived be missing to the left? And why would the greatest golfer who ever lived aim away from the hole?

When we see greatness, this is often what’s happening. Tiger was missing to the left, so he aimed right. I call it “aim left,” because it’s just less confusing than “aim right.” Aiming left is simply accepting you’re not perfect, and shooting your shot according to your tendencies. You can use this in your creative work, in your habits, and yes – in golf. When you’re missing to the right, aim left.

Michelangelo aimed left

When Michelangelo was hired to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he faced an impossible task. As if it weren’t hard enough to paint 12,000 square feet of ceiling, Michelangelo wasn’t a painter! He was a sculptor. He had hardly painted anything to that point. Add to that, this was fresco – which is incredibly unforgiving. You get a patch of wet plaster to paint on each day, and once it’s dry, it’s literally set in stone.

So what did Michelangelo do? As Ross King – who I talked to on episode 99 explained, Michelangelo aimed left. He started with an inconspicuous part of the ceiling – one of the last places someone would look when entering the chapel – and one of the last places the pope would look while sitting on his throne. By starting with an inconspicuous part of the ceiling, Michelangelo was free to let his fresco-painting skills develop throughout the project. By the end of the project, he wasn’t even transferring drawings to the ceiling, and was instead painting directly onto the plaster.

Other greats aimed left

Accomplished creators are always aiming left. They’re always compensating for the weaknesses they know they have.

Ernest Hemingway knew starting a writing session was always the hardest part. So, he aimed left. He made sure to end writing sessions knowing what he was going to write next. That way when he returned to his writing the next day, he’d have no trouble writing his first few words. Kingsley Amis did this, and Todd Henry, who I talked to on episode 109 has said he stops in the middle of a sentence.

Edna Ferber built her dream house, complete with a writing study that had a beautiful view. After all that trouble, she decided that view was too distracting. So, she aimed left. She pushed her desk against the only blank wall in her study, so the view couldn’t distract her. Somerset Maugham also faced a blank wall, and I did it a while myself.

Benjamin Franklin wanted to improve his character, but couldn’t focus on everything he wanted to work on at once. So, he aimed left. He kept a schedule of his “thirteen virtues.” Each week, he tried to improve at only one of those virtues – things like cleanliness, frugality, and humility. By focusing on only one virtue at a time – and forgetting the rest – Franklin improved his character in all thirteen virtues.

Ways of aiming left

To aim left, take anything where you consistently miss, and compensate for that miss.

In The Heart to Start, I talked about “The Fortress Fallacy.” We tend to have visions that outsize our current skill level. Over and over, we start ambitious projects, but fail to follow through once we realize how daunting they are. To aim left, go ahead and dream of the fortress, but first, build a cottage – a smaller project that builds the same skills you’ll use in the larger project.

I also talked about “Motivational Judo,” which is a form of aiming left. If you struggle to get motivated, create conditions that use your own action-avoidance tactics against themselves. Pavlok founder Maneesh Sethi built a wristband to shock himself. Sociologist Harriet Martineau knew she only needed to suffer through the first fifteen minutes of writing, and she’d have the momentum to keep going. This is similar to the Ten-Minute Hack I also talked about in The Heart to Start.

In the previous episode, I talked about a way to cure Shiny Object Syndrome by aiming left. If you know you jump from unfinished project to unfinished project, treat shipping as a skill. Turn everyday things like meals and day-trips into “projects.” Make plans and execute – ship the projects.

Many opportunities to aim left

Look around, and you’ll find many opportunities to aim left. Anywhere you aren’t achieving what you want, you can find a way to direct your imperfection toward perfection. Or, at least, near-perfection – eight inches away, to be exact.

Image: Before the Blitz by Paul Klee

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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