How to be the GOAT (Ricky Weekly #26)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

I’m on a cross country train trip with a company called Wefunder to visit entrepreneurs in different cities. Today is Day 4 of my 9-day journey. I’ll try to write about it next week but the most memorable experiences so far were talking to Bernard Loyd of The Bronzeville Incubator in the South Side of Chicago and the striking beauty of the city of Memphis. Here’s a picture of a Bronzeville Incubator project called Boxville. They’re trying to bring investment and opportunity back to the part of the city that used to be known as “The Black Metropolis.” It was memorable because I was frustrated by how hard the problem is to solve.

Thing on my mind:

Trigger warning: Lots of trigger warnings in here.

GOAT == Greatest Of All Time.

Steph Curry had an opportunity this year without KD and Klay to remind everyone why he could be the GOAT, but he got hurt. Probably for the better because the NBA has gotten good at shooting three-pointers and making him seem much less special. Him playing and struggling to win would’ve just made that even more obvious.

The NBA consensus GOAT is still Michael Jordan, and the closest contender is Lebron James because he’s great yet different from MJ. Kobe never rose to the GOAT conversation because he played too much like Jordan so it’s easy to see he’s just a more recent and inferior version with fewer rings. In order to become GOAT in the NBA, you either have to play “like Mike” but be better by all measures, or you have to change the narrative on how we measure GOAT status. My favorite basketball player is James Harden (blaspheme, I know), but I know he’s unlikely to be the GOAT because basketball fans hate him. He broke the game not in the acceptable way like Steph Curry did by shooting from farther away (which he does, btw), but by being clever with the questionably legal gather step, drawing fouls, and inventing the best unstoppable shot since the MJ fadeaway. Those things are so overwhelmingly controversial that people rather attribute his success to D’Antoni’s system than the fact that he’s actually an amazing shooter, and underrated passer, and extremely strong physically and mentally to be able to do the unconventional things that he does. He’s like Rick Barry unapologetically making underhanded free-throws at a much higher clip yet no one else is brave enough to copy it because it's the “granny shot.”

I was reminded of GOAT narratives because I’m loving Luka Doncic right now and can’t help but notice how similar his game is to James Harden. Obviously he has the stepback, but he’s also extremely smart with using different angles to get around people and a very good passer. He just doesn’t draw fouls like Harden and has a likable babyface as opposed to an untrustworthy beard so people are already including Doncic to the GOAT conversation at the age of 21. Bill Simmons has been re-ranking all of the best NBA players in his Book of Basketball 2.0 podcast and I listened to the episode in which he discussed Allen Iverson. Iverson has a much higher GOAT ranking than he deserves because he’s never won a championship and was extremely inefficient, often chucking up 40+ shots a game. However, what we remember was that Iverson, with his tiny stature, single-handedly willed the Sixers to the finals. Kids saw themselves in Iverson and the way he carried himself on and off the court. Objectively you would never put Iverson in the top 25 of all time, but you might because of how much he shaped the basketball narrative to his favor.

It’s interesting to see basketball players today try to take control of the narrative in order to achieve GOAT status because to me they are already great. They have already controlled everything they can reasonably control by becoming one of the best at their craft, but KD had to leave Golden State because he knows “winning” is only one of the ways we measure greatness. You have to win a certain way. That’s what they mean by being in “the right situation.” Lebron had to leave Cleveland for Miami only to return to Cleveland. These are all narrative-shaping moves to try to take the frame away from MJ. It’s possible that Lebron can succeed and make the GOAT conversation not only about winning selfishly with a killer instinct like Jordan, but about being “more than an athlete.” But maybe we’re not ready for that yet. My hope is that the GOAT narrative shifts and we begin to consider different criteria because the MJ/Kobe mode is outdated and uninteresting if you don’t continuously redefine what greatness means.

I’ve wanted to write about basketball for a while to defend my love for James Harden, but for those of you who don’t like basketball, here’s how I’d draw the parallels in tech and startups.

In tech, the narrative component is not as strong as in the NBA because it’s more about the success of the company you build, but you still notice it. The Google founders made dual class shares a thing in order to maintain founder control. Atypical at the time, but they were so successful that it became acceptable in the Silicon Valley narrative. Zuck and Facebook benefited from this. Google also made treating your employees like kings and queens a thing, and because they were successful that became the dominant narrative that your company at a certain point becomes measured by the perks you dole out to employees.

There are a lot more narrative violations recently and I’m looking forward to seeing them becoming the newly accepted narrative just because I feel like narratives have to evolve.

Silicon Valley innovates. China copies. But Facebook (Instagram) cloned Snapchat and successfully breathed life into Instagram and cribbed Snap’s growth. If it didn’t work that would’ve been a narrative violation, but now more people will be quoting Steve Jobs and say, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

I think Uber won in an extremely complicated business with lots difficult ops components because they did it with extreme aggression. That type of aggression was not typical in the valley. Uber aggressively raised money from everywhere (including the Saudis), which helped them choke off capital from competitors, subsidize fares, leverage their strength into new businesses like UberEats and expand internationally. Even though they eventually retreated from international markets they did it while taking significant ownership in market leaders like Didi in exchange for their retreat. Great deal, I think.

However, Uber’s aggression promoted a toxic culture. They espoused “meritocracy and toe-stepping” and being “superpumped.” Unfortunately that culture backfired, starting with cities lashing back at their rule-breaking to Susan Fowler to the video of Travis Kalanick treating his driver poorly to the class action lawsuits about labor misclassification, etc. It became a huge PR disaster and most of it was well-deserved. Btw I don’t condone any of that behavior, but I’d just like you to consider if PR never became an issue for Uber, would these things still have been a narrative violation?

WeWork followed in Uber’s footsteps by emulating the aggression, and they also became pariahs, further cementing our belief that you shouldn’t cross the line. Being too aggressive will ultimately come back to bite you. But what if WeWork didn’t blow up? It’s possible similar companies could’ve skated by in a different time in history doing exactly the same thing. I’d just like to point out how these narratives operate.

Don’t @ me. Is that what they say? I don’t really know what “Don’t @ me” means. I just wanted to say that. Feel free to @ me anytime. Lol. 😝

Piece of content I recommend:

HBO’s Silicon Valley by Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky

The finale was superb and so was the entire show. I don’t agree when people think it’s hard to watch because it’s “too real.” That’s exactly what makes the show great. Everything that happens in the show happens in real life, but the show compresses the time frame to make them even more ridiculous. I especially liked the finale because it reminds me of all the best people I know in the valley. The current narrative is that tech is rich and sexy, but the people I’m friends with are the same people who made me fall in love with the place in the first place because they simply care so much about what they’re making that they sometimes make really dumb business choices because they’re blind by their obsession. Call me idealistic but without that illusion I’m not sure if I’d be doing what I do.

Lessons to Unlearn by Paul Graham

PG gave me the words I’ve always wanted to label the thoughts I constantly think about. He talks about how school trains us to hack tests, but tests don’t really measure learning. He then talks about how “hackable tests” are everywhere. Some may call it “the game” or “the game within the game.” Do you play it or do you not. I was reading this article on the airplane and basically couldn’t stop screaming on the inside because of how good it was.

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called Single-serving friends