Speed, agility, great ball-handling skills, and natural instincts for game pacing and dictating a team’s offensive strategies are hallmarks of the NBA’s best point guards. Muggsy Bogues had those and more, which led to his selection as a first-round draft pick out of Wake Forest University and a successful 14-season NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets, Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, and Toronto Raptors. Bogues was also—and remains—the shortest NBA player in history.
Short in stature and tall on talent, Bogues faced plenty of skeptics who doubted he could play pro ball in an arena where six-foot-three is considered short. And the skeptics seemed to have a point. If your name is Muggsy and you’re five-foot-three, you sound more like a cartoon character than a pro basketball player. But Muggsy’s lack of stature actually seemed to help him. Faster and more maneuverable than the hulks, lower to the ground than even the shortest guards he faced, Bogues used his height to his advantage. In other words, he went beyond talent to use what others saw as his apparent disadvantage (his size) and turn it into an innate advantage.
Bogues made an excellent guard, but a center he could never be. That job goes to guys like Yao Ming. Under a 10-foot rim, Ming’s standing reach of nine-foot-seven pretty much guarantees him the job, agile or not. I’m surprised a guy that tall can get out of his own way! Yet he has starred at center for the Houston Rockets since 2002 and is a huge celebrity in China. It seems that the Chinese are so industrious that they’ve even found a way to manufacture tall people.
In business, however, innate advantages are subtler than Ming’s or Bogues’s size and become evident throughout our lives and professional careers. One top performer used his innate advantage of an engaging smile and aura of sincerity underscored by a clean, honest look. As a result, people just naturally wanted to meet him, talk with him, even pay for his lunch. In time, he used the enormous trust people had in him to his advantage, not by being dishonest but by enhancing his ability to sell insurance based on his gift for being Mr. Likable.
In fact, much of our success is based on appearance and personality. They’re part of the reason image consulting is a multibillion-dollar industry. It often takes an image consultant to transform a person’s least desirable qualities because, let’s face it, we’re not all that honest with ourselves about what might need to be fixed. It’s like a really wealthy man with horrible teeth. How can he have such devastating dental denial? Does he know he scares kids at the pool?
When it comes to advantages, most of us know the good stuff we got dealt; we just don’t use it to get ahead. Yet it doesn’t take a consultant to play up any innate advantage you have in appearance, image, or personality. That job’s for you! Sometimes it’s just a matter of mapping that innate advantage to your goals. This chapter helps you understand the power of your innate advantage.
The Physical Advantage
The world is full of remarkable athletes, but every few years some insanely gifted overachiever commands the spotlight, first by breaking a world record, then smashing it the next time out, and then continuing to obliterate it over and over until we can’t help but wonder what freaky genetics are in play there.
Michael Phelps is that athlete. He dominated the 2008 Summer Olympics, winning gold medals in all eight of his events, including some incredible swim-from-behind, win-by-a-hair victories. And winning by a hair is tough in a sport where all competitors shave their body hair before each event!
The man’s a machine. He regularly trains six hours a day, six days a week, and he smokes pot! That’s impressive! But surely some of the athletes competing at his world-class level must be training and working just as hard. So what’s this guy’s advantage? What’s the deal?
The deal is that the man really is a machine ideally constructed to plow through water. Most people have a wingspan that matches their height, but the six-foot-four Phelps has a wingspan of six feet, seven inches. And yet his legs, proportionally, are the size of someone who’s just six feet tall. He has hands that have been compared to dinner plates, and he wears size 14 shoes. When you see him on television, you think maybe your TV picture is warped, but that’s what he really looks like!
So while an above-average heart and lung capacity power his long-lever arms and dinner-plate hands to create more propulsion than other people his size can muster, his large torso skims boatlike across the surface, followed by short legs that create minimal drag. And then his size 14s shove him forward some more. No doubt about it, Phelps is one maneuverable mutant!
But we’re not done. And I’m not talking about his fondness for pot.
Phelps is also double-jointed. Great flexibility in his shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles gives him fluidity in his range of motion, creating less disruption to his stroke and greater power in his underwater body-flutter thingy. (I’m running short on anatomy adjectives.) In his book No Limits: The Will to Succeed,Phelps himself puts it this way: “The flexibility in my ankles means I can whip my feet through the water as if they were fins.” That’s as impressive as it is disturbing.
If Phelps keeps succeeding, he might even be as impressive as Lance Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer that, by the time of diagnosis, had spread to his lungs and brain. Some intense chemo, some intense training, and the guy went on to win a few Tour de Frances . . . Tours de France? Whatever. He won seven of them. It’s a record, regardless of how you actually say it, and one that is likely never to be equaled.
How did he do it? Is he superhuman? A freak of genetics like Phelps? Partly. Armstrong’s heart is one-third more effective than the average man’s, and it’s thought to be almost a third larger (uncommon but not unprecedented among elite athletes). Some of this is likely the result of triathlon training from his teen years, but there is also some genetic component that allowed him to develop an almost superhuman heart muscle. You can’t get that with pull-ups. The Discovery Channel program The Science of Lance Armstrong (I have a hard time just going to the gym, and this guy has his own science?) reported that for unknown reasons Armstrong’s muscles produce less lactic acid than other people’s muscles and that his body eliminates lactic acid more efficiently, leading him to experience less “muscle burn” at the point of peak exertion. He has this great innate ability to push on when most of his competitors are left pushing through the pain.
I don’t mean to minimize the grueling training and pure determination of these two amazing athletes by highlighting their innate advantages. On the contrary! It’s important to realize that they willingly trained to improve whatever assets they could. Phelps might not be able to make his legs any shorter, his wingspan any wider, or his feet more Phlipperish, but his continuous training can stretch his endurance, perfect his stroke, and improve his entry and flip-turn techniques. This guy is just one Darwinian step away from a gig at Sea World.
Phelps and Armstrong might have abnormal heart and lung capacities (and, in Phelps’s case, abnormal lunch capacity—he puts down about 10,000 calories a day). But they’re not content to leave that head start unimproved or undeveloped. They train like crazy to expand what they were naturally given. They recognize and use their natural physiological endowments. That’s exactly what innate advantages are all about for any top performer. We have all heard the saying “It’s not what you’ve got but how you use it.” The real truth is that it’s a lot about what you’ve got, and if you don’t have a lot, you might struggle to compete at the highest level.