What I've Learned from Gregg Popovich

A couple of months ago, I tweeted about Gregg Popovich’s famous dinners.

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The tweet got some traction and I think the themes I mentioned are important, so I want to dig deeper into them here:

Raising other’s expectations of themselves

When Popovich is about to leave Ella Dining Room & Bar in Sacremeto, CA, he turns to Jienna Balsadu, then sommelier at Ella and says:

You’re too good for this place. You’re going to do big things. You’re so young, and you’re so well-spoken, and you’re so knowledgeable. It’s clear that you love this. When you love something like this, you hold on to it. You hear me? I will see you again. It will be somewhere else.

The author, Baxter Holmes explains why this is a big deal:

Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry is daunting. Still, she tells herself, “Gregg Popovich sees something in me.”

As a leader or someone that people look up to, your greatest contributions will come from raising other’s expectations of themselves.

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My most rewarding experiences last year came from mentoring freshmen and sophomores at Northwestern. When students come to college, it’s easy to feel imposter syndrome – the feeling that you’re not good enough to be there with people who seem a lot smarter than you. Having a couple of more years under our belt does allow us an aura of having things figured out, which means that when we tell them that they are better than they give themselves credit for, it matters a lot. I’ve seen nervous freshmen in September turn into confident young adults by the time they return home for summer.

Balsadu had a similar journey:

Four years later, when Basaldu makes the leap and lands at The Morris, an acclaimed eatery in San Francisco’s Potrero Flats neighborhood, she looks back on that night with Popovich. And her voice will crack, recalling the time when this famous coach, known for his gruff exterior, gave her the push she needed — how he walked into her restaurant, recognized her game and helped change the course of her life.

Popovich should be a role model for us – he’s raising expectations outside the industry he works in!

Small, private dinners to build relationships

There is something evolutionary about the 4-6 people threshold that allows for diversity of conversation while at the same time retaining the intimate feeling required for maintaining a ‘safe space’.

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I recently read Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, where Waitzkin talks about when you’re starting out, you need to be conscious about the mathematics of chess games – you need to think about the possible permutations of the game given a particular move. However, with time, you can feel which positions the endgame is moving towards.

The same is true for relationships. What once required conscious effort becomes effortless when you spend a lot of time with someone.

Former Spurs guard Danny Green agrees:

Dinners help us have a better understanding of each individual person, which brings us closer to each other — and, on the court, understand each other better.

Another former player confirms:

I was friends with every single teammate I ever had in my [time] with the Spurs. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. And those team meals were one of the biggest reasons why. To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room. It seems like a pretty obvious way to build team chemistry, but the tricky part is getting everyone to buy in and actually want to go. You combine amazing restaurants with an interesting group of teammates from a bunch of different countries and the result is some of the best memories I have from my career.

If you’re on the same wavelength as another team player, it becomes easier to play together. Getting on the same wavelength requires extended time together. Dinners are a forcing function for spending extended time together.

How to lead after a loss

After Spurs lose Game 6 of the 2013 Finals against Miami Heat, Popovich used the dinner as way to recover:

“Pop’s response was, ‘Family!’” Brett Brown, then a Spurs assistant, later tells ESPN. “’Everybody to the restaurant. Straight there.’”

Popovich is already on his way, making a mad dash in a private car to the waterfront eatery. Tables are rearranged — the team will sit in the center, coaches nearby, a ring of family around them. Popovich orders food. He orders the wine. He sits at the head of a table, takes a sip of wine and gathers himself. As the team bus arrives, he greets every Spur who passes through the door.

Over the next few hours, Popovich works the dining room — talking to players, rubbing their shoulders. “In terms of just trying to just hook everybody up to life support and resuscitate everybody, it was the most amazing display of leadership,” former Spurs assistant coach Chad Forcier says. And though the Spurs didn’t win that series, losing to the Heat in Game 7, they would destroy Miami the following June, in five games.

I don’t really need to explain why an amazing meal and alcohol after a terrible day is great to destress – ask the almost 50% of Americans who drink everyday after work.

What’s fascinating to me is that eating together forces you to deal with the loss and come out stronger together. When you lose, it’s easy to separate and “process” things alone, but eating together before you do that emphasizes that you have a support system to help you get through this. That’s how you build resilience.

Generosity

Then comes the tip, and for this, Popovich is renowned. In 2017, he reportedly left a $5,000 tip on a bill of $815.73 at a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee, but one restaurant owner who’s served Popovich many times reports that he’ll often tip $10,000 on a “nothing meal.”

Not all of us are double-digit millionaires who can drop triple-digit $100 bills on tips. But Popovich can inspire us to be just a bit more generous. For someone like me, the currency I have a lot of is time. So I commit to helping at least one person every week this summer. Send me how you are going to be generous by sending my an email at sidhartha.jha7@gmail.com or a DM on Twitter at @sidharthajha.


With that, we wrap up the first week of this year’s Summer of Learning! Thanks for following along, and I will see you on Monday. If you liked this or other posts this week, subscribe to my weekly newsletter Sunday Snapshots where I talk about similar topics.

Lessons from LBJ: Why makes LBJ unique?

A year ago, I read Robert Caro’s The Years of LBJ. The four books have changed how I look at politics, organizations, startups, and careers. Tyler Cowen calls these “quake books” – books that shake the foundation of how you look at life.

Lyndon Johnson was the 36th president of the United States. He oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War, the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the broader “Great Society” legislation. Before that, he was the vice president under JFK, the Senate Majority and Minority Leader (Senator from Texas), and the representative for Texas’ 10th congressional district in the House.

Ever since I read the books, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of memos on particular themes from the series. These include tactics that Lyndon Johnson used to accelerate his learning in an organization, how he gained leverage by became a bottleneck for others, and the storytelling techniques he used to capture voter attention. Every Thursday is a forcing function for me to do just that.

When I was brainstorming ideas about this project with my friends, most of them had a similar question: “Why is LBJ more special than other presidents?”

The story of Lyndon Johnson is the not interesting because Lyndon Johnson was a US president.

The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because he was not only from one of the poorest parts of the United States, he was from one of the poorest families in one of the poorest parts of the United States. The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because when he was a kid and was working as a laborer on one of the first roads that connected the Hill Country of Texas to the rest of the state, he said his then colleagues – other kids – “By God, I’ll be President some day!” It was a path that seemed impossible to plot.

But Lyndon Johnson plotted that path.

Whatever he did – and whatever he did not do – was all in service of this ultimate goal of his. A goal that he didn’t reveal to anyone. It’s difficult to plan your way to the Presidency. There are too many confounding variables. Being directionally correct helps, but you need to be at the right place at the right time.

But Lyndon Johnson planned his way to the Presidency.

It is this meticulous planning that allows us to develop a unique playbook for anyone is young, ambitious, and willing to play the long game. Whatever the controversies surrounding LBJ, I am willing to learn and steal from anyone who is good at anything.

And LBJ was good at a few, very important things.

Lessons from Bradley Tusk's The Fixer

It’s rare that you get to peek behind the scenes at some of the most important political and business campaigns of the last two decades. Bradley Tusk, who now has a VC firm, a consulting firm, and a podcast, was at the frontlines of the Uber campaign against Bill de Blasio and the taxi industry in NYC, Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign, and several other regulatory battles. Through these experiences, he has developed a unique playbook to battle against incumbents, push through bureaucratic malaise, and build a career in a niche with no competition. He shares these strategies and tactics in The Fixer, a memoir that reads more like a war journal. 

Here are my three most important takeaways from the book:

The 5 a.m. email

I talked about this idea in my weekly newsletter, Sunday Snapshots, last week but I want to talk about it again because I think it’s a good example of Tusk’s overall approach towards everything. When you’re starting out in a new career or with a new client, you need to showcase a few skills: competence, ability to take responsibility, and initiative. This neat ritual covers all three. 

5amemail

In the middle of extremely busy campaigns, Tusk’s team would send his client an email at 5 a.m. This started during Bloomberg’s reelection campaign: 

During the mayoral race, I’d send Mike an email at 5 a.m. every day saying who that day’s endorsement was from and everything going on in the campaign that day: field, ads, polling, events, etc. Since Mike didn’t really like the politics, he was happy to get my email, find out what he needed to know, and then go with his day being mayor. Getting something that organized, that early in the morning also didn’t hurt his opinion of me: I came off as hardworking, organized, persistent, and thoughtful.

He extended this habit to his consulting firm, Tusk Strategy, where his team still sends daily emails to his clients with the agenda and objectives for the day:

We’d send our clients an email every morning at 7 a.m. listing what was happening their campaign that day: every market, every issue, every tactic. Clients would wake up and see what was going on. The contrast between our proactivity and most consultants only doing what they’re asked being asked a few times would be a benefit, plus it’d keep me and the client on the same page; we’d have an agenda for the day and it’d make it easier to get things done.

Showcasing preparedness, competence, and initiative can never harm you. Like with any great tactic, I tried to look for ways to incorporate it into my own life. So, I’ve been sending my supervisor at my internship weekly wrap-up emails every Friday about what I worked on that week, what I aim to finish next week, and what I need from them in order to successfully complete these goals.

Leverage your Personal Monopoly

I recently worked with David Perell and Tiago Forte as the course manager for their online course called Write of Passage. The course was about how you can accelerate your career through writing online and one of the modules in the course was called “Building a Personal Monopoly”. The central idea of the module was simple – you’ll face a lots of headwinds if you try to become best-in-class in a crowded space. The smarter approach is to carve out a narrow and well-defined niche for yourself. For example, one of the students in the course was a Pilot and also interested in philosophy. That’s a unique intersection of skills and interests. I suggested that he brand himself as “The Flying Philosopher”. 

personalmonopoly

Tusk used a similar strategy when he started Tusk Strategy, his consulting firm which focused on companies with regulatory and political challenges and ran “big, complex multijurisdicational campaigns for people with a lot of money and a lot at stake.” He knew that this type of firm didn’t exist, which was good because:

It was a great business model in that I’d found a niche no one else had, and as long as some clients were willing to pay the fee (starting at $25,000), I could create the market. It was my model, based on my experiences, my skills, and my interests.

This allowed Tusk to operate without worrying about competitors. Running large campaigns was a unique skillset with high barriers to entry. It meant that Tusk’s only competitor was himself. 

This strategy can be scaled up from individuals to companies. A great example in the book is how Uber fought Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio wanted to make sure his donors in the taxi industry supported him for future campaigns, so he proposed legislation which would effectively kill Uber in NYC. While Uber did pursue some of the tactics that Tusk had mastered through other experiences, they also mobilized their customer base in a way that only they could:

The Uber app in New York City is opened hundreds of thousands of times every day. And when Kaitlin Durkosh on the Uber New York team had the brilliant idea of making “de Blasio” one of the options on the app (next to Uber Black, UberX, UberXL, etc.), we had a way to capture people and mobilize them. If you chose the de Blasio option, you were told there was a twenty-five-minute wait time, we explained the problem, and then asked people to email and tweet at their council members to tell them to oppose the bill. In a week, over 250,000 did. 

Uber and Tusk won the fight in no small part because of this clever tactic. Talk about leveraging your personal monopoly towards accomplishing an important goal!

Align your goals with others

Politics is difficult. Optics matter a lot and politicians can’t always do what they think is right. They need to appeal to their base. This is also true in non-political organizations. In order to get what you want, you should think about how you can make others look better while accomplishing your goals.

In The Fixer, Tusk recounts the 2009 campaign by Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top, an $8 billion program that was made available to states that could implement a host of educational reforms, including innovations around charter schools. The most innovative states would win grants worth millions of dollars. As Tusk explains,

Eight billion dollars is a pittance compared to the amount of money spent on schools across the country every year. If it were handed out to the states, half of them wouldn’t even notice. But once it became a competition, everything changed. By definition, politics is a competitive business, filled with competitive people, and once it became about winning, and losing, every politician wanted to win. This is exactly what Obama and Duncan were counting on. All of a sudden, states were passing major reforms to their laws around helping charter schools. 

Tusk is right that politics is competitive. But what’s even more important is that a particular Governor of a state would be seen to be winning over others. That’s important for re-election campaigns. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Jeff Bezos used the same tactic for his HQ2 proposal. Amazon got amazing tax breaks in a race to the bottom between cities.


The Fixer is a great book, and easily one of my favorite reads of 2019. It’s also extremely easy to read and blow through in a couple of days. I highly recommend you pick up a copy.

What I learned in 2018

I've seen a lot of these posts on Twitter over the past week. It's definitely a useful exercise to think through what I learned this year and I can imagine it to be very instructive when you've got an archive of these going back a few years. 

However, unlike the ones I have been reading, I don't want to review my facts-based learning but instead attempt to catalog the ways in which I grew as a person. These range from personal accountability hacks to how I made my relationships better. Let's get into it.

1. How to have accountability on non-essential projects

When I have a project for class, it's pretty easy to be on top of it. You have a deadline to finish it by. You have some sort of a rubric that defines the scope of the project. You have a teacher that you will have to explain yourself to if you don't finish it. You have a grade that at least in part gives you an objective evaluation of how you did. 

All of this is taken away when you try to pursue an independent project that you're interested in.

I had an idea for such a project – to catalog all the ways I was learning during the summer. A Summer of Learning. The aim was to post a high quality article every day for 10 weeks. What really worked well for me was telling everyone I admire and look up to about the project. This added accountability through social pressure. Whenever I saw these people, they would ask me about the blog and given that this was public, I would have to face embarrassment if I was not staying on top of the daily posts. 

I know that a lot of times these are projects that you do for yourself so it seems counterintuitive to rely on others to remain accountable. Sure, I agree with that in principle. But this works a lot better in practice. 

2. Don't take a break today

The Summer of Learning project was difficult and there were definitely days when I didn't want to write. In a similar vein, there were books like Master of the Senate by Robert Caro that took me months to read. But the satisfaction of pushing through even when I "didn't feel like it" was amazing. 

Here's a helpful mantra that I picked up from Jocko Willink's podcast. If you feel like taking a break, this might be a signal that you are burnt out. Fine, just make sure you don't take a break today. Do it tomorrow. Procrastinate on taking that break. 9/10 times it turns out that you were just feeling lazy in the moment.

3. Putting together effective teams

I've been fascinated by how the different skills and personalities in small groups interact with each other. I've seen this through not just class projects, but through clubs that I'm a part of on campus and through some competitions. I've seen many different configurations in terms of friendships, skills, and attitudes work and not work.

Often it can be useful to define things via their negative. I've found that there's only one constant in the teams that don't work – not having respect for a team member. If one person on the team does not respect another member, nothing else matters. You're done. You might as well close the shop. 

In my experience, this respect does not need to stem from any particular source. You can respect someone for how they dress and you will still get a good group dynamic that leads to a good outcome. 

Note that this isn't a formula for creating a world-class team. I don't think anyone has cracked that general problem. This is just something to look out for in more low-stakes situations. 

4. Give and Take

I read Adam Grant's Give and Take in late 2017 but only got to practice some of the takeaways in 2018. I've really enjoyed the group and 1:1 mentoring I've been able to give to underclassmen at Northwestern. 1:1's are obviously much better but I find a small (5-7 people) group to be almost as effective.  

What I did well was batch any incoming request for help together in the first two weeks of the quarter and follow up with anyone who I have helped in the past to see how they are doing around this time as well. 

I do think that I still need to work on making accessible guides to the most common questions I get asked. I started it with a guide to securing a sophomore year internship but that was pretty much it.  

5. Niche products enabled by the internet

My subscription to Ben Thompson's Stratechery kicked off my interest in brands built around niche products that are being uniquely enabled by the "technology stack" of Shopify, Stripe, Instagram, FB ads, Alibaba and Amazon's FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) program. 

I went deep on this during my internship at Oars + Alps, a men's grooming startup in Chicago. I spent a lot of time on Instagram trying to figure what makes particular brands successful on the platform. This informed a lot of the operational backend work I did for the company. 

In 2019, I want to learn more about how individuals are leveraging these platforms to create successful side-hustles.

6. Making the most of slender chances

I don't generally regret things. But this year, I really regretted the chances and opportunities I wasn't able to make the most of because of lack of effort on my end, however marginal that lack of effort might have been. 

If you don't get an opportunity, it's not as bad. But when you get a chance, you need to convert. 

As I go through next year, I'll constantly remind myself of what Robert Caro said about LBJ's ambition:

"In each of his jobs, he had done “everything”—had lashed himself into an effort in which, an aide says, “hours made no difference, days made no difference, nights made no difference,” into an effort in which he worked weekday and weekend, day and night. And he had “won,” had made the most of each of those slender chances."

7. Appreciating latent relationships

I learned to be okay with relationships that only "activate" once every 3-4 months. I used to worry about losing touch with some really close friends from high school. 

This year, I made a decision to be very straight-forward about it. If something came to mind that reminded me of someone, I sent them a message saying so. If not, I didn't worry about it and just sent a message during holiday seasons. 

I know that there's more nuance to this and I'll probably write about it soon.

8. Taking new relationships to the next level

Most relationships are at the lowest level. This year, I learned that in most cases, it takes is an hour long 1:1 with someone to move someone from an acquaintance to a friend. Not best buds, but someone that you have a background on and can develop a gut feeling for. My favorite way to do this has been through meals

9. Conspiring to make the world better

Easily the best book I read this year was Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. There are so many themes that I found interesting – the limitations of a free press, strategy based on stealth, how to finish things, etc. But the one that has really stuck with me is the idea that a minority opinion can change the world. 

I think too many people are consensus-driven. It's probably for the better in general. But it's important to learn to be okay with making decisions that people don't agree with. I think I took a few steps that gave me an opportunity to practice this but I need to do it more. 

I compiled my full takeaways here from the book here. 

10. Travel more

This year was very light on travel – probably the least I've travelled in last 5 years. This was because of many, many reasons but I don't to repeat it again.  

2018 was a good, solid year. I'm excited to see what 2019 brings!