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  • Tom Birchard

Moving Beyond an Armchair Quarterback

For those not familiar with the phrase, armchair (or Monday morning) quarterback originated in the sports world. It refers to someone who likes to second guess and pass judgement on someone in athletics, be it a player or a coach, all while doing it from the comfort of their own chair. This phrase has been extended to any area of life that lends itself to this dynamic, including but not limited to relationships, parenting, investing, politics, business, and health/medicine (think COVID and vaccines).

I generally believe technology and progress is a very good thing. However, I think a downside is that it’s never been easier to be an armchair quarterback. Information and opinions are EVERYWHERE, so it’s easy to overestimate one’s own knowledge and expertise in a given domain. I for one do this far too often. One example for me is at work where we have tons of access to data and reports. I’ve often found myself drawing a conclusion on what’s important only to go spend a day with a technician or a service coordinator and come out of it with an entirely different perspective on what I can do to make their lives better and ultimately benefit the business.

So, if we can agree that it’s never been easier to be an armchair quarterback, and that generally that isn’t a good things…what can we do about that? Below are a few thoughts on practical steps to take, but I’d love to hear other ideas anyone has as well!

· Go to the Gemba – The Gemba is a Japanese term for “the real place” or “where the work happens”. My example earlier of spending a day on the roof with an HVAC technician is an example of going to the Gemba, because the real work doesn’t happen sitting at my comfortable desk on my phone or computer. It happens with our technicians addressing a customer problem, or at a manufacturing plant where a product is being built. This concept can be applied outside of business as well, where going to the real place and observing can provide insights you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten

· Get Comfortable with Debate – If you disagree with what someone is doing or what they believe, there’s perhaps no better way to find some common ground than to have a healthy debate. This is very difficult, because both parties need to be able to go into the conversation open-minded, and setting their egos aside. You have to into it with intent of debating the topic, but not taking the disagreement personally as an attack on you as a person. When you’re effectively able to do this it has the potential to 1) strengthen your convictions by forcing you to defend your stance in detail 2) realize your position is weak and you need to do more homework before you can speak intelligently 3) change your mind or 4) better understand the other person’s position even if you ultimately don’t agree with it…or some combination of these. This may also require going outside of your normal circle of family, friends, and coworkers to find someone who disagrees with you

· I Don’t Know/Care – We can’t all be an expert in everything but there’s a temptation to always have an opinion, no matter the topic. This can lead to judgement and second guessing. It’s ok to simply say you don’t know, or you don’t care. This is sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness or laziness, but I think you have to take this route often if you’re going to be intellectually honest. Politics is one area where I often use this tactic, there are highly nuanced topics and policies where I simply haven’t put in the work to have an educated opinion. Shakespeare said it well when he wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

· Deep Research and Writing – I guess if you research deeply a topic you’re passionate about but don’t do anything, you might still be an armchair quarterback. Still this is better than having a weakly formed opinion that is causing you to judge someone. Research and doing your homework can help to strengthen those thoughts and opinions. Force yourself to do that research from multiple vantage points instead of just the familiar sources. If you really want to pressure test your opinion, then write it out. I like the quote by David McCullough that says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.”

· Try It – I’ll finish with perhaps the most obvious suggestion, which is to just go try it. To be clear, if you don’t like a play call by Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, you likely aren’t going to wake up tomorrow and go be an NFL coach. But perhaps you could help in coaching kid’s football. If you don’t like a policy decision made by US President Joe Biden, you likely won’t run for the presidency in 2024, but maybe you could run for office of some sort in your community or with a non-profit. I think this approach has the double-benefit of having an impact locally while also getting more perspective to possibly empathize with the individual you’re tempted to judge

I’ll close with Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech that I think sums this up well.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Remember if you have any thoughts on moving beyond being an armchair quarterback, I’d love to hear them. Here are some of the favorite things I’ve come across the last two weeks:

· Book - Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke – A good friend recommended this and it took me a while to get to it, but I’m glad I did. Childhood’s End is a science fiction book written nearly 70 years ago but many of the themes hit really close to home today. It’s also a quick read at just over 200 pages

· TV Show - Yellowstone – I’m definitely a bit late to the party on this one but it’s excellent and highly entertaining. This show has won several Emmys and is a good mix of drama, business, violence, and character development

· Article - Saving the Liberal Arts by David Perell – Long article but really good. Perell is one of my favorite online writers who actually hosts a popular course. Impressive to be able to write something this long and keep it engaging

· Twitter Thread - Julian Shapiro on Turning Notes Into Action – I’m a major note-taker and Shapiro is right, I rarely circle back on the highlights I made or notes I jot down. This thread ties in well to my previous blog post on Articulating Your Personal Purpose

· QuoteLife is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

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