Yesterday, Paul caught a trophy fish.

OK, so it’s not technically a trophy fish. He won’t win any awards and we didn’t even keep it. It was just a little spotted bay bass.

But that one fish represents a major accomplishment. It was the first saltwater fish Paul caught completely unassisted from the shore. 

He’d gone out with me at least 10 times over the past 9 months and never caught a fish. Probably 30 hours of fishing with no success. He’s had a lot of bites, lots of struggle to learn how to cast, and lots of coming up empty.

Finding Free Play

We live in a society that bores easily. Video games, the classroom, even our profession… we want nearly instant results. 

People want to do something for the very first time and see quick success when it just doesn’t work that way. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the argument that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become the best in a field. Although the precision of that claim has been discredited, the general concept behind it is true: If you want to get good at something you’ll need to practice and learn and find your own way of doing things.

To get good, at anything, you have to struggle past the mechanical stage of learning where you are thinking about how to do it to get into the muscle memory stage where you can stop thinking about how to do something to the point where you can start to play.

Success and innovation comes when we get to free play.

Watch anyone who is excellent at their craft and you’ll see that it often looks like play. Why does it look like play when they are doing something incredibly hard? Because it is play!


Few people get to free play… where a small success like catching a bass or a larger success like innovating software that changes the game while creating a great place to work.

You see, to get there you have to push past a lot of failure. Not cute failure. Not the failure you can laugh off as a learning experience. Actual failure.

There’s a characteristic that some people have and other people don’t, which is– in part– why some people succeed where others don’t.

So what is the difference between people who get to the success of free play and the people who just never quite seem to get there?

Researchers use one word: Grit.

Photo credit: Sandpaper by Lukasz Fabis via Flickr (Creative Commons)






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