Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
This week, our high school cross-country runners will compete in the culmination of their season: the district meet. For most of them, the journey began four months ago during one of the hottest Texas summers on record. During those grueling dog days of practice and building mileage, workouts can feel meaningless with no immediate payoff. Our runners, however, found their stride and innate ability to compete as the season progressed.
But now that our runners have discovered what they’re capable of achieving, they sometimes overthink the purpose of cross-country competitions, which is to simply outrun as many people as possible. Instead, they scrutinize their mile paces, analyze their position relative to their teammates, or panic if they feel more out of breath than usual. As a result, some runners regress the closer they get to the end of the season. They need more simplification, not a deeper analysis of the minute details of what’s going wrong. The deeper analysis we make (as coaches and athletes alike), the more complicated and muddled their objective becomes.
As professionals and adults, we’re not too different from those high school athletes. Once we’ve become specialized in our craft or profession and eventually hit a stalemate on our journey, we can overcomplicate things by zeroing in on the “inside view” of the problems facing us rather than employing all of our outside experiences to help us solve them. This idea of the “inside view” comes from David Epstein’s Range, which I’ve been covering in my Substack newsletter, The Monday Morning Coach. Epstein uses this “inside view” term—which was coined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—to explain how we sometimes “make judgements based narrowly on the details of a particular project that are right in front of us” (p. 108).
Epstein goes on to write:
Our natural inclination to take the inside view can be defeated by following analogies to the ‘outside view.’ The outside view probes for deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones. The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are the expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad. (p. 108–109)
Looking for solutions within the problem itself could be what’s holding us back. “Focusing on many fine details specific to a problem at hand,” Epstein writes, “feels like the exact right thing to do, when it is often exactly wrong” (p. 110).
In other words, we should take the outside view to keep ourselves from taking the inside view of our runners’ problems. Instead of using psychoanalysis, pace charts, or differentiated workouts to figure out why they aren’t making progress, we use something most of us experienced back in grade school: playing chase.
In our district, the school colors for most teams we compete against are blue and green. So we’re telling our athletes to play a game of chase, with the objective being to catch every blue and green jersey they can. The more blue and green they pass, the more likely we’ll win “the game.” The jury is still out on whether this strategy will work since we haven’t competed yet. However, practices and recent competitions have improved, as well as our runners’ times. But more importantly, our runners seem to enjoy the competition more with this simpler “outside view” method.
For Christians, this is highly beneficial when examining our lives and how we can be like Christ. Jesus probably understood the “outside view” approach better than any other minister during his time.
When asked by the experts of the law about the greatest commandment (out of the thousands of laws that his culture had), Jesus responded with a simple, all-encompassing answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:33–40). And when an expert tried to complicate the matter by asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?,” Jesus gave an “outside view” answer in the form of a culturally relatable, easily understandable parable (Luke 10:25–37).
The challenge for us is to take an outside view of the problems before us. We have a world of imagination and experiences to help us solve our complex problems. This world is already complicated enough as is. Find some simplicity by taking what you already know to your problems rather than trying to figure out a solution from within the problem itself.