Define Your Strike Zone

In one of my early middle school English classes, I had a seat next to the teacher’s desk where he had taped a poster of hockey athlete Wayne Gretzky and the quote “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

If I managed to submit a quiz early, I would lay my head down sideways on my desk and stare at that poster’s quote while waiting for the recess bell to chime.

At such a young age, my brain was especially malleable and I grew to embody that quote into everything that I did. There was no such thing as a fearful moment or a lost opportunity. Everything was a shot that I needed to take and there were no regrets.

Volunteer to present our projects in front of class? My hand was up first. Everyone scared to take the first leap while cliff-diving in Hawaii? My feet took control and I’d be the first over the cliff into the water.

That quote built an insatiable and intrinsic desire to always be pushing forward. Unfortunately, this desire also meant that I often had too many toes dipped in too many projects.

As a result, a finite amount of time and focus meant that I often lacked the ability to follow-through with each new opportunity.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how I misinterpreted that Wayne Gretzky quote. Wayne didn’t line up a thousand crappy shots and take them all because he could. He had years of practice and instinct that allowed him to optimally line up his hockey stick, rack up the courage, and take the right shots.

When it comes to investments, Warren Buffett often speaks of a taking a “Ted Williams kind of discipline.”

Ted Williams was a baseball player on the Boston Red Sox who analyzed and carved the baseball strike zone into 77 individual cells. He then created probabilistic results of successful bats for each cell based on his history of hitting in each of these strike zones.

By using his rigid method and waiting for the perfect pitches in his optimal strike zones, Ted Williams maintained a .344 batting average and was responsible for more than a fifth of his team’s runs over two decades. For context, a season batting average higher than .300 is considered to be excellent and an average higher than .400 is a nearly unachievable goal. Ted Williams even managed to hit .406 in 1941 (source).

Now that I’m a bit more self-aware of my flaws, I take more time to focus and think before proceeding to jump headfirst into each new opportunity.

Venture capital has been the perfect industry to maintain this level of discipline. While each new founder I meet is unequivocally infectious, passionate, and convincing (as they rightfully should be), I only have a limited number of shots. Now, more than ever, I need to be defining my strike zone.

The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot. And if people are yelling, ‘Swing, you bum!,’ ignore them. Defining what your game is — where you’re going to have an edge — is enormously important.

-Warren Buffett