Making solid contact

    In life, as in baseball, we often dream of a home run rather than keeping our eye on the ball every time at bat

    By Curtis Gillespie, ’85 BA(Spec), on August 5, 2019


    You’ll find plenty of life philosophy out there that recommends focusing on process versus outcome, but this was a foreign concept to me as I entered adulthood — unless avoidance followed by panic followed by all-nighters counts as a process. Submitting essays in university became a test in its own right to see how close to the deadline I could get before handing something in. And I don’t mean the posted deadline, I mean the deadline deadline, the date on which professors had to hand in their marks. I was a rank amateur, though. A friend of mine once handed in an essay six months late, having convinced the prof that he’d be good for it.

    The irony is not lost on me that I ended up in a career as a freelance writer — a field in which deadlines have been known to matter. My career might be why I have become increasingly fascinated with the relationship between process and outcome. So much so that I think I’m increasingly starting to view the process as the outcome. Which is probably not what my editors want to hear, given that their process involves an outcome called a deadline. [Editor’s note: he’s right.]

    I remember reading a book about writing by the American novelist Anne Lamott entitled Bird by Bird. In the book, she explained how she came up with the title. Her younger brother had ignored a school essay about bird life in their area, and then, on the day before it was due, he panicked and frantically began asking his family how he was going to get the essay done and what method would work. There’s only one way to do it, his father told him. Bird by bird.

    I’ve recently had the good fortune to work on a project that has further reinforced the value of prizing process over outcome. It’s not often you get to peek inside the way something successful was made, but that has been my experience lately helping write a history of the Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF).

    But first let’s talk about baseball. It applies, trust me. Baseball is a lot like life. Sometimes it moves quickly and sometimes it takes forever. There’s plenty of sunshine and a few rainy days. It involves a lot of sitting around. And you do a ridiculous amount of running in circles for no apparent reason. Some of my favourite sayings have to do with baseball lingo. A classic you’ll run into frequently these days is, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Meaning that a person was essentially gifted his wealth but thinks he earned it through his own hard work and talent.

    One of the rarest feats in baseball is when a batter “hits for the cycle,” meaning that in one game a hitter has a single, a double, a triple and a home run. It’s so rare that it has happened only 327 times since professional baseball began late in the 19th century. And it has happened only once since they started a formal post-season in Major League Baseball in 1903. Once in 116 years.

    Hitting for the cycle is that rare, and yet, even though baseball is a lot like life, I wonder if too many of us spend our lives in these self-actualized times stepping up to bat thinking we have to hit for the cycle, rather than just focusing on making solid contact. Our life plans so often are about hitting extra base hits that get us somewhere in a hurry, whereas focusing on making quality swings every time is more likely to get us where we want to go. Process, in other words, not outcome.

    Making solid contact is something I’ve been thinking about a lot these days in the midst of writing the ECF history. The foundation gathers and manages endowment funds to create capital returns to distribute to charitable organizations in the Edmonton area. It was created three decades ago by some of Edmonton’s leading philanthropic families. Bob Stollery, ’49 BSc(CivEng), ’85 LLD (Honorary), who had just retired as president of PCL Construction, was the foundation’s first president and also its first financial adviser. And he was a genius. Not just a good human being and a successful executive but a genius, because he understood what an organization and a city might need two, three, five decades hence. He saw from Day 1 that none of that would be possible without the integrity of a strong daily process. His investing principle was simple, sound and unsexy. He invested like a great hitter goes to the plate: he focused on waiting for the right pitch, not swinging at balls off the plate, and when he did swing, making solid contact.

    The result? ECF’s endowment is nearing $600 million and, having granted about $180 million in three decades, ECF is integral to the function of the city’s charitable and cultural organizations.

    In some ways, the notion of process over outcome is about what we do and do not control. If a nice outcome arises from the process — you sell your novel, your business makes a ton of money, you run a personal best marathon — then that’s almost a bonus. There are simply too many things we can’t control, things usually tied to the outcome rather than the process, which is largely something we do control.

    The obvious metaphor for all this is that you’ll never have a chance to hit for the cycle if you don’t focus on the mechanics. And for me, it’s becoming ever more evident that the grind, the mechanics, the daily focus is reward enough. Many people go to the plate trying to hit a home run, and some of them occasionally knock one out of the park. But for the most part, the process is the prize. Revel in it. Dig in. Enjoy every aspect of the process. That can be tough to remember in the heat of play or the everyday. But as baseball legend Yogi Berra once said: “Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical.”


    Curtis Gillespie has written five books and earned seven National Magazine Awards. His New Trail article “A Hard Walk” won gold for best article of 2018 from CASE, an international post-secondary association.