The problem with setting goals with NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho (Transcript)
ReThinking with Adam Grant
The problem with setting goals with NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho
November 15, 2022
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Emmanuel Acho, former NFL linebacker, most notably for the Philadelphia Eagles, and now an Emmy-winning TV sports analyst and New York Times bestselling author.
Emmanuel hosts the video series and podcast Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, and I've learned a lot from his work over the past few years. He's a thought leader who not only challenges us to think differently, but makes it surprisingly fun.
[00:00:43] Adam Grant:
I’ve been following your work for a long time, and I think you, you bring so much insight and nuance to complex and charged topics, and hope we'll get to do some of that today. I wanna talk about the forces that have powered all your success. So maybe we could start there. I'd love to, to know how do you go from Nigerian family to NFL linebacker?
[00:01:03] Emmanuel Acho:
Great starting question. So I'm the youngest of four siblings. We have a saying in Nigeria, “Naija no dey carry last.” You say it with a Nigerian accent. Naija no dey carry last, without the accent, Nigerians don't carry last. Nigerians, we can't finish last. Translation: Nigerians, we can't come in last place. Naija no dey carry last.
That's kind of a throughline of Nigerian culture, and so truly, my Nigerian heritage, if you will. Just a consistent reminder like, “Yo, I don't have an option of finishing last.” Failure is not an option. And so that is probably the biggest, the impetus for my success, if you will.
[00:01:44] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Well, clearly it worked. There's something odd though, in the way that I guess you advise people to pursue success, which I think is totally fascinating and counterintuitive. When I first learned about your story, I just thought, “Okay, Emmanuel is gonna be a monster of goal setting.” And then I read you don't even like goals. You don't think we should pursue goals. What? What is going on there?
[00:02:05] Emmanuel Acho:
Dude, I hate goals. I hate goals. Adam, I feel like people live life in a box. People live life in a box that the world has put them in, and my objective in this life is to break outside of the box. Nobody had ever run a mile in under four minutes. That was the box. The box says you cannot run a mile in under four minutes.
Scientists suggested it is physically impossible. Some even suggested your heart would explode if you attempted to. Roger Bannister breaks outside of a box, runs a mile in under four minutes. But Adam, the sweetest part of the story for me, that is not told often enough, is that within the next two years, ten people ran a mile in under four minutes.
So what that told me was that we had the physical ability to do it. We just did not have the mental ability to do it. And once we saw that one person do it, then all of a sudden it quickly became possible. So I don't believe in goal setting because a goal by definition is an end towards which energy is aimed. But why in the world would I start something with the end in mind? I, I've heard a quote, and you may know it far better than I, so I will loosely paraphrase, but it's like “Reaching a goal is a penalty you receive for setting one.”
[00:03:22] Adam Grant:
Ooh, that's brutal.
[00:03:23] Emmanuel Acho:
[00:03:23] Adam Grant:
That is so painful and so true.
[00:03:25] Emmanuel Acho:
Essentially to say if you reach your goal, congrats. But what if you could have done more? Like you reaching that goal is a penalty that you achieve for setting it. And I'm just like, “Yo, let's blow the top off of all this.”
[00:03:39] Adam Grant:
You're reminding me of something I've heard a lot in Silicon Valley, which is there, there are two ways you could fail. One is falling short of your goals, the other is hitting your goals and realizing that you aim too low. And it sounds like you're really worried about the second kind of failure.
[00:03:53] Emmanuel Acho:
Bingo. Bingo. Because I always say like, why aim for something when you could have anything? And I want to live a life of pursuit of anything. Now in my book, which you referenced to, Illogical, I do couch it by saying, look, if you've heard that by putting your mind to anything you can accomplish anything, you’ve heard far too much.
We are predisposed to certain avenues of greatness in our life. Everybody can't accomplish everything, but you can accomplish the specific things that you are predisposed to be great at. And that's really how I wanna live my life. As like, “Yo, don't live in a box that somebody else sets for you because of the limitations on their life.” And that's the mistake so many make.
[00:04:37] Adam Grant:
I am a hundred percent on board with that. Where it starts to get complicated is the question of, “Should we abandon goals altogether?” Or “Should we make sure we're more ambitious in setting our goals?” There's a whole body of work in organizational psychology by Locke and Latham showing that if we could get people to set more difficult and more specific goals, they end up growing more, performing better, and if I stop there, I think, “Okay, that's what we need to do. We need to make sure that we raise the bar for people.” But then I think about some of the work on the cost of goal setting, about how sometimes when you set a goal, it creates tunnel vision, and it blinds you to alternative goals. And I worry that peripheral vision is a huge problem, and I, I think you share that concern. So talk to me about how you balance those, those two considerations.
[00:05:21] Emmanuel Acho:
You're hitting the nail on the head. What we never talk about is the cost of goal setting. Let me tell this message through a story. The year’s 2011, we're in Austin, Texas. I take an envelope. I open it up. It's from the National Football League. It simply reads: “Emmanuel, you will not be drafted in rounds one through three.” For context, listener, the NFL draft has seven rounds. After my junior year, I wanted to leave college early and go to the NFL draft. I sent my resume, my game tape into the NFL. They sent me a letter back. “You won't be drafted in rounds one through three.” Implying I will be drafted in rounds four through seven.
Adam, what did I do? I set a goal. I took that sheet of paper. I put it above my bed in my condominium, 10 minutes away from campus. Every day I woke up—Adam, true story—I looked at that sheet of paper. Every night that I went to sleep after a long grueling day of 6:00 AM workouts followed by 8 to 12:00 PM class, followed by 12 to 2:00 PM practice followed by 2 to 4:00 PM meetings followed by 4 to 7:00 PM study hall. By the time I got in bed, I looked at it again. I committed that goal to memory. That's what the Harvard study on goal setting says to do.
The year is now 2012. It is, uh, roughly 11 months since I opened up that sheet of paper, maybe 12, 13 months, if you will. Give or take a few. I'm in front of 32 billionaires, 32 of the richest men in the world.
I have one goal. Excuse me. At the time, I believed in goals. I had one goal. I have to run a 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds. I have roughly 2 to 4 million dollars on the line. If I can run the 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds, I get anywhere from a $4 million contract on, if I run it slower than that, a $2 million contract.
[00:07:11] Adam Grant:
Oh man. Can we just pause to acknowledge how expensive that sprint is?
[00:07:18] Emmanuel Acho:
[Laughter] True story. I'm running, I'm at the 30-yard mark and I hear boom, boom, boom, boom. I tear my quad off the bone. I fall to the ground, clutching at my right quadricep in agony, teeth grinding as I roll around on the ground waiting for a trainer. I clearly did not run the 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds. I get drafted in the sixth round.
I was devastated. Why, Adam? Because I set a goal, and I committed 13 months of my life to the goal of being drafted in rounds one through three. My self-esteem was ruined. My self-efficacy was ruined. I tell you that three-minute story to say we don't talk about the detriments of goal setting.
That failure set me back a year. Trying to mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physiologically recover from that failed goal. It set me back a year. It was at that moment after the draft, I committed to no longer setting goals, to having an objective with no limitations. Because if you wanna live a life without failure, you live a life without goals.
[00:08:24] Adam Grant:
So interesting. So reconcile this now with Roger Bannister, because Bannister, as a medical student, knows the supposed physical limitations that prevent us from running a four-minute mile are bogus, right? And he sets a goal of breaking the four-minute barrier. Without that goal, maybe it takes us a few years longer. Maybe somebody else makes history. Are you abandoning goals altogether or are you trying to make sure that you don't get locked in and limited by them?
[00:08:53] Emmanuel Acho:
I'll give you two things. No, I am not abandoning goals altogether, to lead with the headline. I'll get to that. Now for Bannister, remember the first mile he ever ran sub-four was 3:59.
I just wonder, just me, how much faster would he have run if he didn't say, “I just want to break four”? ‘Cause he just broke four and that he did. But he didn't run 3:55. He ain't run 3:50. For context, America, the world record in the mile’s currently 3 minutes, 43 seconds. So it's been broken by 17 seconds since our friend Roger Bannister did it. So I just wonder what he would've done.
I'll serve you up a story and then I'll answer your question again. My closest friend, my co-producer for Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Olympic gold medalist in the 4-by-100-meter relay at the Rio Olympics. She anchored the 4-by-100-meter relays in the prelims. Olympic gold medalist.
But to qualify for the Olympics, you have to get top four in the open 100 meters at US trials. US trials is the trial for the Olympics. You have to get top four to run on the relay because four people run on a relay. She told me going into that race at US trials, aka US championships, she said, Adam, “My goal was only one thing. Just get fourth place. Just get fourth place. Just get fourth place." She was like the top three runners of some of the greatest of all time. Well, Adam, guess what place she got? She got fourth place. Achieving her goal is a penalty for setting it. So she got fourth place, but she didn't get first, second, or third.
I say that to say, “What if Banister could have done more?” Now, to answer the question, I do believe in goal setting at times. I, I believe in goal setting when you have to accomplish a microscopic goal for the macro picture, that's when I believe in goal setting.
Let's use the same track and field relay example. In a relay, there’s a baton for individuals run a certain leg or length of the relay. It does not matter how fast you want to run if you do not get the baton from your hand to your next teammate's hand. So within that micro context of, “Hey, we wanna run really fast”, your goal better be to make sure that baton gets around.
I don't believe in goal setting when you want to set a time because you can run faster. But if, if the mark cannot be improved, then I believe and I will submit to goal setting.
[00:11:16] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] So I think you're also highlighting another distinction that I've never thought about before, but is really interesting, which is you like goals on tasks, but maybe not goals in life.
If I'm working on a specific project or if I'm trying to build a specific skill, fine, like gimme a target, I will work toward it. I will grow because of it. But having a goal for my life, that's where the penalty really hurts by limiting myself.
[00:11:39] Emmanuel Acho:
Correct. That is, that is where the penalty hurts the worst. I don't even love goals on certain tasks. For example, I play the piano as a hobby, right? I would never want to, like, just learn a song, right? I might say, “Hey, I want to learn the piano.” But that's limitless. That is, that's limit—learning the piano is limitless. That's where I try to live. Adam, I live in the abstract. When I first got into media, after I left the National Football League, people said, “Who do you wanna be, Acho? Michael Strahan?”
And I said no. Now Michael Strahan's amazing. He's a coworker of mine at Fox, but if I wanna be Michael Strahan, then I might only end up being Michael Strahan, plus Michael Strahan's taken. So, like, that would be a limit for my life because I gotta be the best version of me. Period. So my goal is not to be or walk in somebody else's shoes. My goal is to walk in my own and pave my own path. Thus, it's not a goal. An objective is energy aimed in a direction. That's the definition. So I want to aim my energy in a direction without any limit. That's where I live.
[00:12:46] Adam Grant:
What I think is so exciting about that philosophy is it really pushes us to redefine success. I find that so many of the people that I work with, from students to founders to military generals, they define success as achieving their goals. And I always wanna push back and say, “No. Success is living your values.” If you hit a target, but you compromise your principles along the way, you are not successful.
[00:13:14] Emmanuel Acho:
I love that. I love that. I have, in my own life, I've had to navigate, Adam, focusing more on significance than success. Right? I try to live a life of significance because if you want to live a life of success, and typically success has a monetary implication, if you want to live a life of success, you may miss both significance and success.
But if you choose to live a life of significance, you'll probably end up doing both. When I talk about a life of significance, a life of significance is truly allowing others to be better versions of themself. That to me is significant. Successful is usually predicated on self-success. I want to be successful. I want to be successful. Typically, success is usually also closely correlated with “I”, whereas like significance is just its impact. It’s impact. I want to impact the world, impact the corporation, impact my occupation. I implore people to really strive towards significance and you'll be successful as well.
[00:14:15] Adam Grant:
This speaks to something that has been bothering me for a long time with sports.
I was a big fan as a kid of, of team sports. I still am. But even in team sports, there's an implication that if I wanna win, someone else has to lose. And I think it creates this, this kind of false dichotomy where success is zero-sum. I need to make sure that somebody else fails if I wanna make it. And that is true when we define success in sports, right?
But it's not true in life. And this is your fundamental point. I think that so many of us learn our ideals about success through the sports that we play. Um, so how do we change that given that there is gonna be a winner and a loser in every competition?
[00:14:56] Emmanuel Acho:
Over the last six months, I've navigated what you said intimately, ‘cause you're exactly right. I host a sports show. Sports is a zero-sum game, y’all. Point blank. Period. There's only one Super Bowl champion. There's only one NBA finals champion. There's only one World Series champ. That's it. It's not multiple. There's one. For me to win, you must lose.
But to your beautifully fascinating point, life is not the same way. There is no clear answer. I think the clearest practice is being able to turn on and off the switch of when life is zero-sum and when life is not. But oftentimes life can be zero-sum. That is an ugly truth that oftentimes life can be zero-sum.
[00:15:44] Adam Grant:
That is a segue to one of the, the uncomfortable topics that I wanted to talk about.
I think that one of the, the pieces of resistance that I'm seeing among a lot of frankly, white men in America, to pick on a group I happen to belong to, is the idea that, I have to give something up in order to help a disadvantaged group. That I don't wanna lose my opportunity to advocate for the promotion of, of a woman of color, for example.
And, you know, I'll just, I'll start rattling off some science about how in the long run, like, creating opportunities is a net positive for all of us. But the conversation always comes back to, “And what about my opportunity?” And I wonder how you think about this and talk about it and navigate it given that I, I think you, you nailed the dilemma for me, which is sometimes it's zero-sum, sometimes it's not. What would you say to that person?
[00:16:34] Emmanuel Acho:
Selfishly, I understand. Right? It's a dog-eat-dog world out here in this life. It is a very much so selfish, “I gotta protect mine”. If I was stepping outside of my own race and my gender and just looking at things from a neutral perspective, what I would suggest to that individual, particularly that white man, is understand based upon the culture and the context of America, you, generally speaking, the white man, has been given so much of a head start that from a completely fair perspective, it is only right that we balance that playing field head start.
The most simple way I can get to it is with the grandfather’s clause. What's crazy, Adam, I've realized so many things we learned in history class that we thought was boring when we were 12 years old is utterly fascinating. Okay? Grandfather’s clause. Quick history lesson reminder. Back when Black people and women were disenfranchised, no right to vote. Finally, it was like, okay, okay, okay, Black people, you can vote, but here's an issue. We're going to give you all literacy tests. If you can pass the literacy test, then you can vote.
Problem: Black people couldn't read because we were coming out of slavery. Other problem though, white counterparts who couldn't read were also failing said literacy tests. So now we have to create a grandfather’s clause, which simply said, “Hey, if your grandparents can vote, you can vote.” Well, Black people's grandparents couldn't vote cuz they were slaves.
And that's just one small, small, small, small point I would point to of like, understand: life is not based upon how well you perform historically. Life is based upon, and success in life is based upon, nepotism and cronyism. Nepotism, you hire your family. Cronyism, you hire your friends. So if historically white men have been in power and they've hired their friends, they've hired white men, and they've hired their family, they've hired white men.
So if we're just speaking from a purely objective perspective of leveling the playing field, it is now only fair that we go above and beyond to fight for equal metrics. That's how I would appeal to those counterparts, because it's really a matter of do you have the job because you're most qualified, or do you have the job because you're most known?
That's what it is, and I'll end with this. Diversity breeds success. In 2003, the NFL implemented what is called the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule simply says, “If there's a head coaching vacancy, you must at least interview a Black man. You don't have to hire him, but you at least have to interview him.” That was the Rooney Rule in 2003. By 2004, a Black man was hired to the Chicago Bears to head coach: Lovie Smith.
By 2007, just three years later, for the first time in the history of the NFL, two Black head coaches met in the Super Bowl. Statistically speaking, there was less than a 4% chance that two Black head coaches would meet in the Super Bowl. So what does that mean? In a sport that literally owns one, maybe three days of the week, if you wanted to see the highest level of competition, you needed diversity. Imagine what that could look like in your own life, in your own business, in your own home, in your own office space, in your own work.
[00:19:55] Adam Grant:
It makes so much sense, and it reminds me of a paper that I read by Celis and colleagues, which showed that if you institute the Rooney Rule, implicit bias goes down. And then in the long run, people are more likely to select minority candidates, and I think what's, what's interesting about that is what you're advocating for is very clearly—when you say leveling the playing field, right—you’re asking for equality of opportunity. You want everyone to have a fair shot. You're not saying the outcomes are always gonna be perfectly equal. You're saying everybody gets a chance.
[00:20:26] Emmanuel Acho:
Bingo. Because truth be told, everybody just hasn't historically gotten a chance. Like, I'm not even advocating for a complete pendulum swing, I'm just advocating for a fair shot. The reason there's so many different hiring disparities of, of minority groups is because we only look where we want to find the answer that we want to find instead of looking for the answer that we need.
The 40 yard dash in the NFL. It is a really dumb metric by which you wanna measure success, because rarely ever do you ever run 40 yards in a play.
[00:21:02] Adam Grant:
I, I don't think Tom Brady has ever run 40 yards—
[00:21:05] Emmanuel Acho:
Ever run 40 yards in a play. Of the 22 people that are on the field at any given time, maybe 4 of those 22 will run 40 yards in a play. Maybe, maybe.
So why are we still using that metric? Hey, at the NFL combine, Adam, you bench press 225 pounds for as many repetitions as you can. Why are we still using that metric? Because that's where the light is. See, it's much harder to turn on film and analyze tape and analyze opponents. It's much easier with light to simply say, “He ran 40 yards in this amount of time. He lifted 225 pounds in this amount of time.” And we do the same thing in our own occupational lives.
[00:21:49] Adam Grant:
The combine is a great example of a failed work sample, right? So in my world, when we get a work sample, we wanna approximate the job you're about to do and give you a simulation of it, basically. And so if you're gonna, if you're gonna be hired as a salesperson, we're gonna give you a chance to sell. If we're gonna ask you to be a software engineer, we're gonna give you an opportunity to code, and I can't believe the combine hasn't at least said, “Okay. Instead of just doing your 40 timed, let's ask you to change directions twice and also be chased by a defender, right?” Which is a little closer to what's gonna happen in the game instead of testing how far you can throw the ball.
Um, let's see if you can accurately hit a target when there’s, an, Emmanuel running into your face, right? I mean, those seem like small changes and they seem like changes we should make first in sports because we can decompose the tasks and the skills into these tiny little building blocks. Why haven't we done it yet?
[00:22:43] Emmanuel Acho:
It's difficult. My coach would always say, “Acho, don't be like water. Water takes the easiest route.” And what we often do in sports, but in honestly in our own lives, challenging everybody to be introspective for a second, we take the easiest route. I know that grocery stores are designed in a certain manner to make you walk down certain aisles.
So I'll walk into a grocery store and I will fight the natural inclination to walk a certain way, and I will just beeline a different way. Because I'm consistently trying to train my mind and my body, “Hey, fight against ease.” Going back now full circle of this conversation, that's the problem with goal setting.
Goal setting. It's easy. I want to make a hundred thousand dollars by the time I'm 28. Great. I have a finite marker, a finite age. This is what I want to do. I don't have to think about anything else again, easy. It is much more challenging to live life abstract because now every day is a challenge and every day is a constant pursuit towards greatness.
[00:23:51] Adam Grant:
Are you up for a lightning round?
[00:23:53] Emmanuel Acho:
Let’s do it.
[00:23:53] Adam Grant:
First one is, you've had a lot of uncomfortable conversations over the last few years. What's your best tip for preparing for one?
[00:24:00] Emmanuel Acho:
Start with facts.
[00:24:04] Adam Grant:
Love it. You’ve gone on a lot of medical missions over the years. What have you taken away?
[00:24:09] Emmanuel Acho:
It is better to give them to receive.
[00:24:11] Adam Grant:
Hard to argue with that one. What's the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten?
[00:24:17] Emmanuel Acho:
God, I love that. “The market is too saturated for a book like Uncomfortable Conversations. Don't write it.”
[00:24:23] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I’m so glad you ignored that one. So glad. If you could make any rule change in football, what would your choice be?
[00:24:32] Emmanuel Acho:
I love this. You would get to review roughing the passer calls, roughing the passer penalties. You know what I would actually say referees are watching from a camera offsite, and the game is refereed by people watching from a camera so they can see everything.
[00:24:51] Adam Grant:
[00:24:51] Emmanuel Acho:
Remove, remove human error in real-time as much as possible.
[00:24:56] Adam Grant:
That, that makes too much sense. It'll never happen. What's something about success that you've rethought?
[00:25:01] Emmanuel Acho:
Personal success can be very empty. Personal success can be very empty.
[00:25:08] Adam Grant:
And finally, what's your best guidance for the Eagles this season to win the Superbowl?
[00:25:16] Emmanuel Acho:
Howie Roseman, General Manager, Howie Roseman. Stay aggressive. Stay aggressive. The year the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, in the middle of the season, everything was going great, but Howie picked up a guy named Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins, a running back. I was like, “Howie, you already have several running backs. Why'd you pick him up?” Jay Ajayi went to the Eagles and helped contribute in that Super Bowl and the rest of that season, he stayed aggressive. Stay aggressive.
[00:25:39] Adam Grant:
Howie, I'll call you later to discuss. Stay tuned.
[00:25:47] Adam Grant:
Just a heads up. Emmanuel and I are about to talk about safety and concussions in football, and there's a brief reference to self-harm.
Let's talk about one of those challenges in football for a moment. I remember it must have been 1991, uh, Lions fan. I'm watching a game and I watch this awful hit on Mike Utley, and he's just laying there motionless on the field, and I think it was the first time I ever saw a serious injury in sports.
I was just frozen, and I remember him showing a thumbs-up as he got carried off the field on a stretcher, but the news was not good. He was paralyzed. And, uh, it was clear to me then that football was a risky sport. Fast forward to the first undergraduate class I taught at Wharton. I had a, an incredible student, Owen Thomas, who ended up dying by suicide.
He was the most enthusiastic, beloved person I, I knew on campus, and he was the person who cheered everyone else up. Nobody saw any signs of, of real mental health issues. And then ultimately it turns out, even though he was never diagnosed with a concussion, he had CTE. And then I watched the back events with Tua Tagovailoa, and it felt like the last straw for me that there were all these discussions about, well, you know, do we need to revise the concussion protocol? Why are we still playing a game that requires a concussion protocol?
At this point, Emmanuel, I would rather watch flag football. I am not here for the hits. I'm not here for the tackles. I wanna see the passes, the runs, the catches, and I don't want players to put their lives on the line in order to play a game. What are your thoughts?
[00:27:31] Emmanuel Acho:
You just unleashed. Um, let me preface with this. I spent three years working closely with one of the leading neuroscientists in our country after I retired from the NFL in 2016. I played four years in the National Football League, and I was working so closely with this neuroscientist, learning about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, learning closely about that, I learned so much that I had to stop researching ‘cause I just, I knew too much. I interviewed the ex-wife of, um, the deceased Justin Strzelczyk, Justin Strzelczyk, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman drives 90 miles per hour the wrong way down the interstate, head-on into a tank truck, ends his life. I spent a lot of time, a lot of time researching this. I'll preface with that.
I will also submit to you, Adam, similarly to goal setting and the disadvantages it has, there are advantages. I would not be where I am today from a team building, from a toughness mentally and physically, from an accountability, from an integrity standpoint, without the game of football.
Several advantages, several clear advantages. There are obviously, now to your point, issues, we prioritize winning over player safety. Clearly, if you watch the Tua Tagovaiola incident… For those that need a little bit of context on a Sunday game, Tua was playing the Buffalo Bills. Playing the Buffalo Bills, he gets knocked down.
He taps his helmet as he’s walk—as he trying to get up, and he begins to stumble so much so that his offensive lineman had to help him walk. Tua leaves the game and goes to take a concussion test. I step on Twitter, and I'm like, “I do not care if he passes the concussion test. He should not return to the game.”
Tua returns to the game and they win. Why did Tua return to the game? In my mind, because you desperately needed Tua to win one of the biggest games of that first-year coach's career against the Buffalo Bills: the odds on Superbowl favorite. The Miami Dolphins, who Tua’s the quarterback for, go on to beat the Buffalo Bills, but the entire world watched that Tua could not even walk.
Fast forward four days later for you listeners, Tua gets carted off the field with temporary paralysis. His hands are stuck, his hands clenched together, carted off the field in an ambulance. So that's just a full context of things. Why did Tua go back into the game? Because we prioritize winning more than we prioritize player safety.
It's really that simple. You cannot remove concussions from a contact sport, but you can mitigate the damages and mitigate the risks. So what I believe we must do is mitigate the risk while simultaneously maximizing the benefits.
I can speak to that ‘cause I did it in my own life. I got one concussion in eight years of high-level football. Four years college, four years pro. I was not a big hitter. I was gonna tackle you. I was a linebacker. Job description of a linebacker: get the person with the ball on the ground, simply put. I was going to tackle you, but Adam, I wasn't gonna knock you out. Heck no. I was gonna go low, I was gonna go with your legs. I was like, I was never trying to knock anybody out because I knew the consequence of that.
Now it cost me a hall-of-fame career, sure. It may have cost me a Pro Bowl, may have cost me bigger contracts, but I got what I needed to get out of the NFL. And so, I played the game how I would suggest everybody play the game, but keep in mind, I didn't play the game at an MVP-caliber level. So it's really all what you want out of this life.
[00:31:08] Adam Grant:
I love the way, by the way, that you protected your safety and were able to, I mean, you balanced, right? Those two priorities of, of achieving success and creating a bunch of doors that open for yourself, right? But then also making sure that you weren't putting your future on the line.
I would love it if somebody with that mentality, had the option to say, “You know what? I don't need this to be a contact sport.” So imagine: end of the year, Tom Brady retires, he starts a flag football league, he gets a bunch of players to join him. Could that offer an alternate outlet or are there just too many owners and fans and systems built up around tackle football?
[00:31:44] Emmanuel Acho:
Twofold. I saw when you put that out after the Tua injury, I believe you posted this on Instagram and I was like, “Ah, we'll talk about this.”
[00:31:51] Adam Grant:
[00:31:52] Emmanuel Acho:
Here is why—
[00:31:53] Adam Grant:
I, I, I wanna know what I need to rethink here, so bring it on.
[00:31:56] Emmanuel Acho:
The reason to me, football is the ultimate sport, is because it tests so many things. How mentally tough are you? How well can you comprehend a playbook and a moving playbook based upon what the opponent is doing? But then on top of that, how physically tough are you knowing you have to go hit a 315-pounder? It tests everything, Adam.
Moving it to a flag football league would be undermining what it takes to be great. It would be removing one of the barriers involved for greatness. Peak performance, defined by some, is when maximal level of difficulty meets maximal level of performance. You get peak performance. You would be removing some of the level of difficulty. So, outside of the systems and outside of the historical context, flag football wouldn't work because it's just not as difficult.
And think about in life, we gravitate towards watching people do things we can’t do. That, that's really what it is. If I watch Simone Biles, I am in freaking—woman or not—I’m in awe. If I watch Serena Williams, I am in freaking awe. I am in awe. LeBron James. I am in awe. Why does Steph Curry suffer for so long getting the world's respect? He’s 6’3, 180 pound guy. Not that physically imposed, like I could be Steph Curry.
[00:33:25] Adam Grant:
I could shoot a three. Of course.
[00:33:27] Emmanuel Acho:
[00:33:28] Adam Grant:
But I can’t dunk.
[00:33:28] Emmanuel Acho:
Bingo. We all think that. Because, like, “He can do that, I can do that.” But you don't ever look at an NFL player and go, “Yeah, I could do that.” But you could look at a flag football player and do that.
So I'm giving you a broad context of the whole psychology and climate of even how we receive sport to let you know, bro, so many couch potatoes would be like, “I can do, I just did that at Turkey, try at the Turkey Bowl last week with my family.” That, that's, that's a long and short answer.
[00:33:59] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I think that reaction is exactly what we would see. I do wonder though, there's a counterfactual in my head, which is imagine that, you know, over, let's say about a century ago, basketball is invented as a tackle sport, okay? And so when you're, when you're driving into the lane, like somebody can just maul you, if that's how basketball grew up, then right now, wouldn't you be making the same argument that basketball could not live without tackling?
[00:34:27] Emmanuel Acho:
That's why I love talking to you. I knew I would. Let me answer you by simply saying a tree could not become a seed. But a seed can become a tree.
[00:34:35] Adam Grant:
[00:34:36] Emmanuel Acho:
I’ll let the viewer break that down as obviously you have digested it now.
[00:34:39] Adam Grant:
No, you, you nailed it. We are creating a different sport essentially.
[00:34:42] Emmanuel Acho:
Essentially. Something can evolve and we love the concept of evolution, but we would not wanna see a butterfly go back into the cocoon. That's not sexy, play? After the cocoon burst, we wanna see a butterfly. So something can evolve, but it can't devolve. If you made it devolve… you can't give a kid a toy and then take the toy away. They’ll cry. You already gave them the toy. It's theirs now. Sorry.
[00:35:06] Adam Grant:
That's so interesting. I, it's so funny because I was thinking about this as evolving from a safety perspective and you're saying, “But wait, don't forget that we're devolving from a difficulty perspective.”
[00:35:15] Emmanuel Acho:
And from an entertainment perspective. And at the end of the day, sports are entertainment. We get taxed—people don't realize this in sports, you don't just get a standard paycheck. Your paycheck is dependent upon what city you play in that week. I love playing in Dallas, ‘cause there’s no state tax. So whenever we would play the Cowboys, that check gonna be a little bit bigger. Hated playing in New York. When I gotta go play the Giants, that withholdings is gonna be the worst. And so, sports ultimately is entertainment. How can we continue to evolve from an entertainment perspective?
[00:35:50] Adam Grant:
So as we wrap up, are there other things I should have asked you but didn't?
[00:35:53] Emmanuel Acho:
No, I mean, we really explore the, the goal-setting topic very well, which I appreciated and I appreciated kind of your feedback and challenge of thought.
I just think goals are dumb, dude. Now it's a little hyperbolic and a little like big, sexy, catchy. And I'm like, yeah, I just, I think goals are dumb, and I think they do more harm than good, but you also have to navigate. So then what the hell do I do instead of setting goals? That's the real things, like what do I do instead of setting goals?
And that's where I'm more just like, “Look, objective, no limitations.” Aim in a direction. Like when people ask me, Adam, “Emmanuel, what do you want to be?” I say, “I wanna be one of the most creative people the industry's ever seen.” Can't fail. It's subjective. Your objective should be subjective. It should be subject to people's interpretation. So I don’t, like, want to get this or want to get that know. I just want to be one of the most creative people the industry's ever seen. And that's my objective.
[00:36:49] Adam Grant:
What, what I find so compelling about that is your objective is is not about the result you achieve. Ultimately, it's about what you contribute and put out into the world, which is, I think, fundamentally in line with your idea that you want to be significant, not just successful.
[00:37:04] Emmanuel Acho:
Bingo, and you… That’s a good point. I've never heard it verbalized like that. But yeah, like my objective is just to be excellent and do excellent things. That's it. Like just, just continue. And that way you never arrive. I've done great things, but I never set out to do great things. I just set out to be excellent.
And when you look up, you'll end up having all of the worldly things if you care about 'em. But if not, you'll just be very pleased with who you are and what you've done.
[00:37:34] Adam Grant:
Beautifully said, excellence is a value, not a goal.
Emanuel captured something that I've often seen in my own research: that pursuing success doesn't guarantee us significance. That when we aim for wealth or status or power or fame, we often end up with a shortage of meaning and purpose. Whereas when we pursue significance, when we think about: what’s the contribution that I have to offer? How am I gonna make someone else's life better? The meaning and purpose is built in, and that often becomes a source of motivation, which then propels success.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Hana Matsuidara. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Let me just start by saying I don't know quite where this wants to go, but are you ready for an uncomfortable conversation with a white man?
[00:38:54] Emmanuel Acho:
I am. In fact, man, I am.