The Problem With Gretzky

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


“There are fifty ways to screw up any decent crime, and if you can think of twenty-five of them, you’re a genius. And you ain’t no genius.”

— Mickey Rourke to William Hurt, in the ’82 film noir classic ‘Body Heat’

We’ve all heard it, respectfully, too many times. People love to quote Gretzky’s alleged advice: ‘Don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where it’s going to be’. Apparently the advice came from Wayne’s dad Walter, which makes it all the more endearing. But if I hear that little gem even one more time, I think I’ll strangle somebody. (Happy new year, by the way.)

The biggest problem is that Wayne was a one-in-a-million hockey genius. He apparently just had this uncanny sense of knowing where the puck was going. The rest of us, meanwhile, are more like William Hurt’s hapless character – we ain’t no geniuses. I have zero idea where the puck is going. I thought that Hillary was going to win. When Trump won, I thought that the stock market would go down and gold would go up.

The other problem is that sports analogies never apply very effectively in business, or life. Just one example: In business, there isn’t one puck, there are several. Everyone alive has been scored on because they thought they were focused on the main action, and missed the little winger swooping down the left side with the other puck. Of course, the more pucks there are, the more opportunities as well.

Here’s a third problem: Everyone already knows that they must skate to where the puck is going and they do their best to do exactly that. Everyone else is doing exactly the same thing, with the same basic thinking. So when you skate over there, it’s very crowded. And you end up hacking and slashing and elbowing with the other nine skaters (and trying to win by competing on low margin — we do that all the time).

So here’s my humble counter thought, worth exactly what you paid for it: When everyone agrees where the puck is going (which they will), skate somewhere else. If there’s a seventy-five per cent chance the puck is going to a certain spot, all the Gretzky wannabes will skate there. Your individual chances will be way better at the twenty-five per cent spot. It likely won’t come to you the first time, and you’ll look like a dummy. And probably not the second time, but it will come to you before long. And then you’ll you’ll have the puck. And you’ll be all alone. And you’ll have the puck. (Pucks are very unpredictable. Even genius boy Gretzky didn’t always get it right.)

Or pick a different puck. Almost everyone else will pick the most obvious opportunity. Many of them will skate over there simply because everyone else is skating over there. (OK, I know I’m torturing this analogy to death). At EllisDon in the eighties and early nineties, Alberta was the radioactive puck. Everyone laughed at those lost souls right up until they started cashing disproportionate profit sharing cheques. In the last ten years until recently, it’s been our Services Division, where the opportunities for advancement have been much faster, because most people sneered at them. Ha ha ha …. oops.

Here’s the other reason for this strategy. If it doesn’t work, because you’ve picked the wrong spot or the wrong puck, just skate somewhere else. Almost every successful entrepreneur has two or three misses before they hit it big. This blog is about careers, but the rules are the same. Just don’t abandon the strategy. Even though it has one big problem…..

I see people do it all the time. They pine after the senior position that was critical ten years ago, instead of the one that will be critical five or ten years from now. Why? It’s not because they can’t see it, that’s actually the easiest part. It’s because it’s very solitary, and the other nine skaters laugh at you. ‘What are you doing over there, stupid? This is where the action is.’ There is very little immediate joy in snubbing your nose at every other player on the rink, and standing by yourself in a place with a twenty-five per cent chance of immediate success.

But it’s the only way to win.

Thanks for reading.

PS: Full disclosure: I never played the game. I know absolutely zero about hockey. But Gretzky’s advice is used as an analogy for pretty much everything, and I’ve been around a lot of career path development (and a reasonable amount of business building). Have a great 2017.