Under the comb, the tangle and the straight path are the same.
Coach Nick Saban doesn’t actually refer to it very often, but every one of his assistants and
players lives by it. They say it for him, tattooing it at the front of their minds and on every
action they take, because just two words are responsible for their unprecedented success: The
Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama football team—perhaps the most dominant
dynasty in the history of college football—doesn’t focus on what every other coach focuses on, or at
least not the way they do. He teaches The Process.
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think
about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think
about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides us a way.
It says: Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down
into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next
thing. Follow the process and not the prize.
The road to back-to-back championships is just that, a road. And you travel along a road in steps.
Excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at this one, then that one, and then the one after that.
Saban’s process is exclusively this—existing in the present, taking it one step at a time, not getting
distracted by anything else. Not the other team, not the scoreboard or the crowd.
The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions.
Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you
have right in front of you and finishing it well.
Whether it’s pursuing the pinnacle of success in your field or simply surviving some awful or
trying ordeal, the same approach works. Don’t think about the end—think about surviving. Making
it from meal to meal, break to break, checkpoint to checkpoint, paycheck to paycheck, one day at a
And when you really get it right, even the hardest things become manageable. Because the
process is relaxing. Under its influence, we needn’t panic. Even mammoth tasks become just a
series of component parts.
This was what the great nineteenth-century pioneer of meteorology, James Pollard Espy, was
shown in a chance encounter as a young man. Unable to read and write until he was eighteen, Espy
attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Espy tried
to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends
shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”
Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at
Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now, you’ve only got twentyfive
more letters to go.”
Espy had just been gifted the process. Within a year, he started college.
I know that seems almost too simple. But envision, for a second, a master practicing an
exceedingly difficult craft and making it look effortless. There’s no strain, no struggling. So relaxed.
No exertion or worry. Just one clean movement after another. That’s a result of the process.
We can channel this, too. We needn’t scramble like we’re so often inclined to do when some
difficult task sits in front of us. Remember the first time you saw a complicated algebra equation? It
was a jumble of symbols and unknowns. But then you stopped, took a deep breath, and broke it
down. You isolated the variables, solved for them, and all that was left was the answer.
Do that now, for whatever obstacles you come across. We can take a breath, do the immediate,
composite part in front of us—and follow its thread into the next action. Everything in order,
When it comes to our actions, disorder and distraction are death. The unordered mind loses track
of what’s in front of it—what matters—and gets distracted by thoughts of the future. The process is
order, it keeps our perceptions in check and our actions in sync.
It seems obvious, but we forget this when it matters most.
Right now, if I knocked you down and pinned you to the ground, how would you respond? You’d
probably panic. And then you’d push with all your strength to get me off you. It wouldn’t work; just
using my body weight, I would be able to keep your shoulders against the ground with little effort—
and you’d grow exhausted fighting it.
That’s the opposite of the process.
There is a much easier way. First, you don’t panic, you conserve your energy. You don’t do
anything stupid like get yourself choked out by acting without thinking. You focus on not letting it
get worse. Then you get your arms up, to brace and create some breathing room, some space. Now
work to get on your side. From there you can start to break down my hold on you: Grab an arm,
trap a leg, buck with your hips, slide in a knee and push away.
It’ll take some time, but you’ll get yourself out. At each step, the person on top is forced to give a
little up, until there’s nothing left. Then you’re free—thanks to the process.
Being trapped is just a position, not a fate. You get out of it by addressing and eliminating each
part of that position through small, deliberate actions—not by trying (and failing) to push it away
with superhuman strength.
With our business rivals, we rack our brains to think of some mind-blowing new product that will
make them irrelevant, and, in the process, we take our eye off the ball. We shy away from writing a
book or making a film even though it’s our dream because it’s so much work—we can’t imagine how
we get from here to there.
How often do we compromise or settle because we feel that the real solution is too ambitious or
outside our grasp? How often do we assume that change is impossible because it’s too big? Involves
too many different groups? Or worse, how many people are paralyzed by all their ideas and
inspirations? They chase them all and go nowhere, distracting themselves and never making
headway. They’re brilliant, sure, but they rarely execute. They rarely get where they want and need
All these issues are solvable. Each would collapse beneath the process. We’ve just wrongly
assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it. We are A-to-Z
thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.
We want to have goals, yes, so everything we do can be in the service of something purposeful.
When we know what we’re really setting out to do, the obstacles that arise tend to seem smaller,
more manageable. When we don’t, each one looms larger and seems impossible. Goals help put the
blips and bumps in proper proportion.
When we get distracted, when we start caring about something other than our own progress and
efforts, the process is the helpful, if occasionally bossy, voice in our head. It is the bark of the wise,
older leader who knows exactly who he is and what he’s got to do: Shut up. Go back to your stations
and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves instead of worrying about what’s going on
out there. You know what your job is. Stop jawing and get to work.
The process is the voice that demands we take responsibility and ownership. That prompts us to
act even if only in a small way.
Like a relentless machine, subjugating resistance each and every way it exists, little by little.
Moving forward, one step at a time. Subordinate strength to the process. Replace fear with the
process. Depend on it. Lean on it. Trust in it.
Take your time, don’t rush. Some problems are harder than others. Deal with the ones right in
front of you first. Come back to the others later. You’ll get there.
The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen
later, or the results, or the whole picture.
Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble. (Quidvis recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.)
—SIR HENRY ROYCE
ong past his humble beginnings, President Andrew Johnson would speak proudly of his career
as a tailor before he entered politics. “My garments never ripped or gave way,” he would say.
On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass him by shouting about his working-class
credentials. Johnson replied without breaking stride: “That does not disconcert me in the least; for
when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always
punctual with my customers, and always did good work.”
Another president, James Garfield, paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his
school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. He
did the job every day smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s
bell tower to start the classes—his day already having long begun—and stomp to class with cheer
Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor—teaching a full course load in
addition to his studies. By his twenty-sixth birthday he was the dean.
This is what happens when you do your job—whatever it is—and do it well.
These men went from humble poverty to power by always doing what they were asked to do—and
doing it right and with real pride. And doing it better than anyone else. In fact, doing it well
because no one else wanted to do it.
Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that
we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,”
as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another
opportunity to excel—and to learn.
But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re
given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in
life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.
Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying
for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought. Everything is a chance to do
and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current
Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to
our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our
priority, vanity falls away.
An artist is given many different canvases and commissions in their lifetime, and what matters is
that they treat each one as a priority. Whether it’s the most glamorous or highest paying is
irrelevant. Each project matters, and the only degrading part is giving less than one is capable of
Same goes for us. We will be and do many things in our lives. Some are prestigious, some are
onerous, none are beneath us. To whatever we face, our job is to respond with:
helping others as best we can
You should never have to ask yourself, But what am I supposed to do now? Because you know the
answer: your job.
Whether anyone notices, whether we’re paid for it, whether the project turns out successfully—it
doesn’t matter. We can and always should act with those three traits—no matter the obstacle.
There will never be any obstacles that can ever truly prevent us from carrying out our obligation
—harder or easier challenges, sure, but never impossible. Each and every task requires our best.
Whether we’re facing down bankruptcy and angry customers, or raking in money and deciding how
to grow from here, if we do our best we can be proud of our choices and confident they’re the right
ones. Because we did our job—whatever it is.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. “Obligations” sound stuffy and oppressive. You want to be able to do
whatever you want.
But duty is beautiful, and inspiring and empowering.
Steve Jobs cared even about the inside of his products, making sure they were beautifully
designed even though the users would never see them. Taught by his father—who finished even the
back of his cabinets though they would be hidden against the wall—to think like a craftsman. In
every design predicament, Jobs knew his marching orders: Respect the craft and make something
Every situation is different, obviously. We’re not inventing the next iPad or iPhone, but we are
making something for someone—even if it’s just our own résumé. Every part—especially the work
that nobody sees, the tough things we wanted to avoid or could have skated away from—we can
treat same way Jobs did: with pride and dedication.
The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found
presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone
else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your
job to answer with your actions.
In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to
Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question. That’s
one way to find the meaning of life. And how to turn every obstacle into an opportunity.
If you see any of this as a burden, you’re looking at it the wrong way.
Because all we need to do is those three little duties—to try hard, to be honest, and to help others
and ourselves. That’s all that’s been asked of us. No more and no less.
Sure, the goal is important. But never forget that each individual instance matters, too—each is a
snapshot of the whole. The whole isn’t certain, only the instances are.
How you do anything is how you can do everything.
We can always act right.