Do You Have a ‘Sense for the Historic’?
Why did elite athletes like Michael Jordan and Manchester United keep winning over and over again? A study showed they had a ‘sense for the historic.’

Perhaps the greatest separator between the best, and the rest, is an individual’s grasp of the concept of “sense for the historic.”

The concept originated in a 30-year-old study of the dynasty sports teams and sports individuals. Think of Michael Jordan. Bayern Munich. Manchester United. The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. Why did they keep winning over and over again?

The study showed the key deciding factor is a presence of a “sense for the historic,” which, in simple terms, means a recognition that one sits at a historic juncture in life (in this case, the finals of the NBA or European Championships) and that in this case, failure is not an option. They just won’t accept failure in this all-important situation. They realize that with this situation, they may never get the opportunity again. People — and teams — who possess a sense for the historic don’t always win. They make mistakes like we all do. But when the biggest moments come in life, they will themselves to be perfect… to win.

It’s basically recognizing the biggest moments in life, having the wisdom and foresight to see these big moments for what they are, and in these moments, you don’t screw up. You are perfect.

After 37 years of coaching elite athletes and 34 years in corporate life, I have to agree: whether it is in sports, business, or life, the people who possess a sense for the historic are the ones who come out on top. Think about the old saying, “Opportunity knocks but once.” This is a sense for the historic.

Let’s skip the champion-athlete examples, and look instead at some real-life, everyday examples.

Meet Oluwabukola “Bukky” Pereira. I met Bukky as a 15-year-old runner on the streets of Lagos in 2010. She was a prodigious talent, winning road races while often running in bare feet! She came from an extremely poor background, went to a local school, and did the best she could. I befriended Bukky and her family and offered to help her get to the US on an athletic scholarship, earn a US education, and change her life. This was never about training her for the Olympics — that’s a long shot — this was about leveraging her talent in running to get her an education and open up opportunities she would normally never have.

Despite her good grades in school, she failed the SAT (the standardized test for US universities) on the first try. Not her fault. She studied hard and did well in school. The issue was, her school simply wasn’t of the highest standards. She recognized this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that would never pass by again. She possessed a sense for the historic. She and I hired a tutor, she took the exam again, and failed. She kept going to tutors, and on the third try, she passed! She was offered a US scholarship and got on the plane for America.

She wasn’t going to fail on this one. She may have failed a million times in life, but she would not fail now. She knew her grades were most important. So, while she ran well, she studied even harder. This past May, she graduated top of her class from Southern Baptist University. She was an Academic All-American. She now has job offers in the US and back home in Nigeria that she is sorting through.

Oluwabukola "Bukky" Pereira
Oluwabukola "Bukky" Pereira

Her life is changed forever and for the better. Armed with a US degree, she can lift herself and her family out of poverty. Bukky saw she had one lucky chance in life, a chance for a girl off the streets of Lagos to go study in America, and she had a sense for the historic.

Let’s take a contrasting example. Last week on social media here in Dubai, I came across a young lady who was down on her luck and needed a chance. She could not find a job to support her family. She was appealing for help. As the CEO for one of the largest FMCG companies in Dubai, we always have an opening somewhere for a talented and motivated employee. So, I personally reached out and set up the interview at her convenience.

Now, this is where the sense for the historic has to kick in. One has to recognize this is a golden opportunity. You are going to meet the CEO directly and he already wants to hire you! You have to dress your best, look your best. You have to prepare. Study up on the company and its CEO. You have to be perfect in everything. You leave home an hour ahead of time to ensure you aren’t late. You make sure you don’t fail.

She didn’t show up for the interview. She didn’t call. Forty-five minutes after the supposed start of the interview, she called and said she would arrive perhaps in another 30 minutes. So, this would mean she would be an hour and 15 minutes late, if that. I said not to worry. It was done. The door was opened but now it was closed. She had to recognize the important moments in life, have a sense for the historic and not miss. This is the kind of person I want on my team. I wish her luck, but she had her shot and she blew it.

We all make mistakes. We all screw up. We all fail. This is being human. But the best know they can sometimes be perfect, and they focus on being perfect when it really counts.

A sense for the historic is an everyday matter, for all of us, in our lives and our jobs.

I have made millions of mistakes with numbers, but when it comes to making a wire transfer, I have never made a mistake and I never will. When it comes to sending money, one extra “zero” can destroy a person’s life. There is no room for a math mistake when making a wire transfer. I check every number at least five times. I ensure it is perfect. This is an everyday example of a sense for the historic. Knowing when we have to be perfect. When failure is not an option. The best have it. The less-than-the best make mistakes and then apologize for it. You don’t screw up on wire transfers. Ever. It’s a sense-for-the-historic moment. It’s your money at stake!

I have 3,500 employees. It never ceases to amaze me how I can separate my very best from the rest on a sense for the historic.

We have cases where people have been given major, high-profile projects — high visibility to myself and the board. And everything goes wrong. Details fall apart. The plans collapse. Sure, there are good excuses and lots of explanations. But these are “sense for the historic” projects. The ones you don’t fail in; the ones that have to be perfect. One has to be wise enough to recognize these moments, and then determined enough to will their way to success. They have to say to themselves, “I will not fail, and I will not allow this to be screwed up.” But they don’t do this. The project flounders and they don’t push hard enough for perfection. And this is why they aren’t the best in job performance.

I have others who are superstars. Our most important measure is profits. And they don’t miss. Every month, they deliver and over-deliver. And I know if I moved them to another unit, they would perform the same. No matter where you put them, they just win. It’s all about a “sense for the historic” attitude. Winners have it. Losers whine about circumstances and bad luck and “the others have an easier market than I do.” Losers conjure up every reason to justify failure, everything but taking a hard look in the mirror.

Winners have a sense for the historic. They indeed fail in life. They screw up. They make mistakes. But not when it matters. Not when it is a “sense for the historic” occasion.

Do you have a sense for the historic in your life and career?

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James Michael Lafferty

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