Tony Romo and Deep vs. Superficial Understanding


Over 53 million people watched last weekend’s NFL playoff games. Tony Romo was one of those. Situated in the TV booth, Romo was providing color commentary for the viewer’s enjoyment at home. In theory, we were watching the same game. In reality, Romo was watching something entirely different.

Romo displayed an uncanny ability to call plays before they happened. Runs in a specific direction; passes to a particular receiver; Romo called them before the ball was even snapped.

Was Romo blessed with the power of foresight? Of course not. Through years of study and practice, he was simply seeing the game in a different way. He’s able to pick up patterns and tells, clueing him into what play is about to happen. That’s part of being an NFL quarterback. Reading the other team and understand what’s coming and how to adjust.

The difference is between a deep and superficial knowledge level. The vast majority of us know a little about football. Even if we are diehard fans and have watched hundreds of hours of games, we see the game through a superficial lens. The sheer amount of time watching football fools us into thinking we have expertise, but we are watching a completely different game than someone like Romo.

This superpower isn’t reserved for ex-NFL quarterbacks. It occurs in all of us. Whenever we obtain a deep understanding, we are able to recognize patterns and turn slow deliberate thinking into almost automatic processing.

And to obtain this superpower what did Romo do? He gave the game attention. When you are watching a football game, you are giving it partial attention. Seeing the zoomed out picture of pass completions and touchdowns. Romo is zoomed in. Seeing the details that provide clues to the big picture.

The lesson isn’t that Romo is prescient. It’s that time spent watching or doing an activity doesn’t guarantee expertise. If you aren’t giving it your full attention, you are operating on a superficial level. No matter how many hours you devote to it. To truly understand just about anything, it requires much more: A focused attention; seeing the interaction of the details and the big picture. Learning of the nuance of the game or activity.

Once you’ve achieved a deep understanding in whatever endeavors matter most to you, maybe you too can predict what play is coming next.

— Steve

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