Football, Brock Purdy, Christian Siriano

This is a regular old blog post that hopefully says something about the current era of worshipping hubris instead of competence.

Tony Stubblebine
4 min readFeb 14, 2024

This is just a thought that I was sharing with some coworkers, lightly edited to work as a blog post rather than a message to people I work with.

I was thinking about the 49ers (American) Football Team as a long lived organization because Medium is also a long lived organization. I have to clarify “(American) Football Team” out of respect for our international, soccer loving teammates and also out of respect for Dan in engineering.

The 49ers had a golden era in the ’80s and ’90s, followed by a tough stretch. Now they are a strong organization again, but finding out how hard it is to get over the hump. If you aren’t a football fan, what I’m saying is that they won five Super Bowls in that golden era, and then in the last ten years have lost three. That’s good, right? Losing a Super Bowl is a lot better than not making the playoffs.

But if you looked at their faces over the weekend you could see how frustrated they were.

Medium is in a similar boat. We had a great start, then had a rough period, and we’ve turned it around and are entering our new golden era. I’m not going to make this about “but we’ve still got a lot of improvements to make” although that’s true.

Instead, I wanted to call out something that people seem to undervalue: being good at regular stuff. I think regular things matter, like agreeing on one tool for our documents or, and this is embarrassing, having the owner of our bank account be someone who still works here.

This is what Luke Millar pointed out in his 1% better talk about the British Cycling team. A lot of people are looking for big, magical improvements, but you can do a lot with the concept of aggregating marginal gains.

The 49ers were in the Super Bowl in large part because of their quarterback. He has been a surprise to everyone. His name is Brock Purdy and he was the last pick in the draft, which means every other team thought there were a lot better players to pick from.

Then he joined the 49ers as the third string quarterback which means his own team thought they had two better players than him at his own position.

Now that he’s turned out to be very good, even a candidate for MVP, people are wondering why.

The consensus answer is so basic: Brock makes good decisions quickly and has good footwork. It turns out the coaches and general managers in the league overlooked “makes good decisions” in favor of runs fast, throws the ball far.

I think that comes from a place of fear. If you aren’t confident in your plan then you hope for some magical savior to overcome your failings. In football, that’s a quarterback who can run when the play breaks down and he can’t find a place to pass. (Counterintuitively, Brock can also run which implies it has to do more with decision making and footwork than with raw speed).

In short, Brock being great at basics makes him great at his job. There’s nothing impressive or magical about him. He’s just relentlessly good at regular things.

To take this out of sports comparisons, I was in a convo at one of our local coworking days about the reality TV fashion design competition show Project Runway.

There’s a similar story about being good at the details. People seemed to agree that Christian Siriano is by far the best contestant of the entire series.

I once nearly jumped out of a moving car to go accost him on the street because I’m such a fan. As a fan, my fan theory is that the reason he’s so great is because he’s so good at the basics.

It’s a trope in the show that the other designers are pressed for time and have to literally tape their clothing to their models before the runway shows.

Meanwhile, Christian was always done early because he was great at the basics of measuring, cutting and sewing clothes. As a result, his innate talent and creativity was able to shine. (Fierce!)

Well, why am I sharing this? One is that I just wanted to put it out there that I would talk to any of you about how much I love Christian Siriano.

But the other is cultural. We live in a moment that is seemingly dominated by big personalities making bold claims at the expense of, you know, being good at their job. Does that mean hubris can replace competence? It would be nice if that were true because spewing bullshit sounds a lot easier than spending years mastering mundane details. Some of you might be thinking about Musk. But I’m thinking about that guy asking for 7 Trillion Dollars to fund his company.

The thing about “that guy” is that he’d a few months earlier been temporarily ousted from his own company in what can only be described as a train wreck of clown cars.

It was hard to look at those stories of obvious mediocrity, with confused messaging, terrible internal communication, and a seemingly plausible chance of squandering billions of dollars and square it with the fact that these leaders lead a very important and successful company.

It grates on me.

And so if there’s one story that I might be able to tell as I do my current job, it’s that it is ok to aspire to both big ideas and mastery. Try to have big ideas and try to be great at the details.

Medium itself is two big ideas. One is old, that it’s worthwhile to hear from everyone. The other is new(ish) and it’s that the attention economy sucks and we should charge a subscription so that we are incentivized to provide quality instead. But that wasn’t enough to make a successful product or business. It required these two big ideas and then also several thousand detailed improvements (so far).