Building on the expert insight of University of Queensland’s Professor of Sport Psychology & Coaching Cliff Mallett, this update drills into the Key Characteristics of The Worlds Best Coaches. Like any decent update this post aims to provide a deeper user experience, particularly focusing on the process of knowing ourselves: Or in other words the process of hacking, updating and refining our operating system.

At some point we all need to update our software, but its often niggly and almost always annoying. In the long run it (normally) makes life easier, but that hasn’t stopped me putting it off in the past. The thing is, the world’s best coaches continually update their software – it’s a top priority for them.

At the end of the 2015 Key Characteristics of the World Best Coaches post I wanted to summarise the findings and provide a few research-based next steps. This is what the research suggested:

  • Read a lot
  • Know who you are and be open to change
  • Know your athletes

The problem is: How exactly does anyone get to know who he or she is? And how do we become open to change?

Combining 6 months of PhD reading with arguably the best blog around  I hope to shed some light on this topic. The blog is Wait But Why and as I loaded the main page a couple of Saturdays ago I saw the latest post – The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce. This 20,000 word post is the final instalment of a 4 part series and explained the key characteristics of Elon Musk: arguably the most extraordinary human alive.

A slightly off topic note: For me finding a new WBW post (especially on Elon Musk) is like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. Elon Musk is basically Iron Man with fewer jokes and more of a conscience, his motives for getting out of bed in the morning include simultaneously saving the planet and the human race from almost inescapable extinction – yes he does sound like a superhero, but a real life one, and no, he doesn’t have a magic suit (that I know of). Space X (space travel), Tesla (electric cars), Solar City (solar panels) are just some of his projects. We are big fans of Elon at PDP.


The new WBW blog highlighted the key characteristics of Elon Musk and – through the exceptional research, interviewing and writing of Tim Urban– entertainingly explained that the secret to Musk’s successes (and failures) has a lot to do with knowing himself and being open to change. The more I read, the more I realised that Musky has the mindset of a world-class coach, something obvious when he talks about why he does what he does (particularly the bit in italics). Musk says:

“I certainly admire the discoveries of the great scientists. They’re discovering what already exists – it’s a deeper understanding of how the universe already works. That’s cool, but the universe already sort of knows that. What matters is knowledge in a human context. What I’m trying to ensure is that knowledge in a human context is still possible in the future. So it’s sort of like—I’m more like the gardener, and then there are the flowers. If there’s no garden, there’s no flowers. I could try to be a flower in the garden, or I could try to make sure there is a garden. So I’m trying to make sure there is a garden, such that in the future, many (Richard) Feynmans may bloom.”

Note: Richard Feynman is a Nobel Prize winning physicist. He received his Nobel prize in 1965 for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.

This is what world-class coaches (and leaders) do:

They create an environment for players (people) to flourish and to do this they aim to understand two things intimately:

  • The elements within the environment – so they read a lot.
  • Their players’ needs – so they tirelessly work to know their athletes, utilising both the art and the science of coaching (more on these here).

As I read on it became apparent that the same thing that has made Musk a billionaire world changing altruist is the very thing that defines world-class coaches: What Tim Urban calls our software or operating system. What became even more apparent was that WBW’s Tim was explaining how we get to know ourselves and become more open to change, and he was nailing it.

This is my take on WBW’s explanation:

WBW uses the analogy that everyone has software and hardware. Hardware being peoples’ biological make up (our wiring) and software being our psychology: the way we think and view of the world – our operating system. Tim quickly points out that Musk is exceptional not because of his hardware, but his software. Like the world’s best scientists, Musk uses his software to understand things by “reasoning from first principles”.

This means, instead of working from preconceived ideas or underlying cultural assumptions Musk builds his thinking (and his way of seeing the world) from the ground up. One of Musk’s secrets is that he questions all the cultural sediment and faulty ‘common sense’ of previous generations.

In comparison most of us sub-consciously outsource this phase of our development – building the foundations of our software. Sub-consciously a process called enculturation takes over, leading us to adopt the beliefs, values and ideas of the culture we are born into without questioning their often faulty foundations. Too often this means that when we come to write our own software – constructing our identity and developing ‘who we are’ – we are programming on top of an operating system already full of (cultural) bugs. Even worse we have no idea the bugs are there. Annoying.

As an example, WBW highlights the problems for geologists who assumed (according to religious doctrine) that the world was only 6000 years old. Adopting this faulty belief created a serious bug in their operating system. Basically, this fundamental flaw in their thinking meant they couldn’t progress in their field. Just like a coach who thinks that controlling and manipulating his players will get the best out of the team.

The world’s best thinkers – the people with the best software – understand the potential problems that come from building our reasoning on top of old cultural assumptions. To reason from first principles is to go back to the fundamental principles and avoid cultural assumptions. Many look to science for these principles, however even fundamental principles of science may change.

Richard Feynman explains, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain”.

Tim explains this: “In our lives, the only true axiom is “I exist.” Beyond that, nothing is for sure. And for most things in life, we can’t even build a real scientific theory because life doesn’t tend to have exact measurements.”

It is extremely hard to re-program our faulty software and break free of underlying cultural assumptions because we don’t know they are there. As Einstein said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environments. Most people are incapable of forming such opinions.”

Blind Tribalism

Another way of thinking about this is that people fall across a spectrum of conscious vs. blind tribalism. Blind tribalism refuses to reason from first principles. For example: Dad and I have always supported Liverpool, even though they’ve played some pretty terrible football at times (the game against West Ham being a prime example).

If we reasoned from the following first principle “to watch and support teams that aim to keep possession and play entertaining attacking football” we may have ditched Liverpool at some point over the years and supported someone else. Therefore our irrational support of Liverpool Football Club can be considered a type of blind tribalism.


Perhaps the best example of the difference between blind and conscious tribalism came when the Glazers took-over at Manchester United. When this happened a splinter group broke off and formed F.C. United of Manchester. We could argue this happened because these fans were “reasoning from first principles” specifically the principle that their club should represent the people of Manchester. With the Glazers takeover these fans felt this was no longer the case and broke away to form F.C. United of Manchester – a form of conscious tribalism. Tim (of WBW) would suggest that these people have well developed “reasoning skills”, I would say they have an open-minded integrity. Either way, they are closer to knowing themselves (and the first principles they reason from) and obviously open to change.

For me reasoning from first principles is the same as knowing what you value (or knowing your core values) and knowing how to embody that in what you say and what you do.

Blind tribalism is a breeding ground for conformity and cultural conditioning. It’s rampant in the modern world and its led creativity and development researchers to suggest that:

“We have generally been unwilling to explore the extent to which we are shaped by our culture, and in the case of encouragement and promotions of creativity, we have focused on individual factors rather than attempts to change social circumstances” (Montuori & Purser, 1997, p. 4)

A big part of knowing ourselves is knowing the extent of our pre-programmed cultural conditioning and figuring out how open and or close we are to “reasoning from first principles”.

Blind tribalism makes us adopt cultural values that control our thinking, our behaviour and manipulates the way we live our lives. Knowing who we are is about choosing our values and then using these values to direct our lives and guide how we coach – reasoning from our own first principles.

This is easier said than done, however to stimulate this change WBW suggests we all need three major epiphany’s. And research supports this idea, indeed studies of diversifying experiences, like sudden parental loss, forced immigration and multicultural experiences have been seen to break well-established (culturally conditioned) cognitive patterns. In Tim’s words the following Epiphany’s allow us to re-program / update our software.

Epiphany # 1: I know nothing (and that’s ok).

The smart people are the ones who realise how little they know.

Isaac Newton: “To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”

And Richard Feynman: “I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.”

And Niels Bohr: “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”

Elon Musk has his own version: “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

For me a lot of this is about replacing ego with humility.

When I’m coaching, humility may allow me to recognising that when I see a player “making a ‘mistake’” what I thought was happening may be very different from what the player was attempting. Humility allows me to consider what the player may have been trying to do:

  • Something that I never could
  • Something that I might not be able to comprehend
  • Something that they may not be able to articulate in words (even if I ask)
  • Something that made sense in that fleeting moment of the game given their skill set.

This humility opens the space for creativity.

Epiphany # 2 is that while we know nothing as an individual we know even less as a group or society.

Steve Jobs

“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

This is about cultivating a healthy disrespect for society, conformity and blind tribalism. It’s about seeing the world differently. Research suggests:

Only once we have overcome our social conditioning can we fulfil our creative potential (Simonton, 1999).

Tim explains further: “Being a gamechanger is just having little enough respect for the game that you realize there’s no good reason not to change the rules. Being a trailblazer is just not respecting the beaten path and so deciding to blaze yourself a new one. Being a groundbreaker is just knowing that the ground wasn’t laid by anyone that impressive and so feeling no need to keep it intact. Not respecting society is totally counterintuitive to what we’re taught when we grow up – but it makes perfect sense if you just look at what your eyes and experience tell you. There are clues all around showing us that conventional wisdom doesn’t know shit. Conventional wisdom worships the status quo and always assumes that everything is the way it is for a good reason—and history is one long record of status quo dogma being proven wrong again and again”.

Epiphany # 3 Fearlessness is fundamental and taking risks essential

I’m going to let the modern philosopher Alan Watts explain this one in this short video:

If we choose our values and live by them with open-minded humility we have a chance of knowing ourselves, becoming open to change and having nothing to fear.

The first step is to question everything, this is the key characteristic of the worlds best coaches.

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