The '85 Chicago Bears is considered one of the best, if not The Best, American football teams in history. (Which I say with some authority as a lifelong resident of The Windy City.) And a big attribute of their success was something called the "46 defense."
Many think it got its name from the formation of players on the field, but that's not true. It was so named after player number 46, Doug Plank.
The Chicago Bears weren't very good in the '70s or early '80s, and in desperation, the defensive coach, Buddy Ryan, decided to make Doug the leader of his defense. Doug was ferocious. He didn't have a "B" game. He played at full speed whether it was practice or the most important game of the year.
And his spirit was contagious.
If you look at the roster of the '85 Bears, you see guys that don't look like your typical football all-stars. But the '85 Bears played like they had nothing to lose. They played like Doug Plank. In fact, Plank's influence is especially clear when you consider that Plank had already been retired for two years when the Bears had their banner season.
So, there's a good chance if Doug Plank had never played professional football, Chicago might never have had those famous '85 Bears.
And Doug Plank almost didn't play professional football.
See, Doug wasn't all that talented. He was small. Scouts ignored him. Division I colleges rejected him.
So what did Doug do? How does a guy, who isn't "talented" still end up living his dream, and changing the course of history for his team?
Let's leave the football field for a moment and head for the ivory towers of academia - researchers face rejection regularly.
They're constantly testing hypotheses that turn out to be wrong. And even after an experiment succeeds, they have to get their research published, where they face even more rejection.
So what's the impact of near constant rejection?
Vincent Calcagno, a biologist from the French Institute for Agricultural Research in Sophia Antipolis, wanted to find out. In an article in TheScientist, Vincent remembers his own constant rejection:
I went through the frustration as a PhD student of having a nice piece of research that I really liked rejected by five, six, maybe seven journals in a row before it was accepted.
So Vincent and his colleagues surveyed the researchers who successfully had their stuff published.
As you might expect, many of the successful researchers seemed to have a knack for getting published. 75% of the published researchers got into the first journal they picked.
Then there's the other 25%. These are the folks that look a bit less talented. They'd been rejected at least once before getting published.
And here's where it gets interesting.
If you publish something, being cited is everything. If nobody is citing it, it effectively means no one finds any use from it.
What Vincent found was that the more your research was rejected, the more successful you were in getting citations once it was published. Originally rejected papers were more useful and popular than those which hadn't been rejected.
One explanation is the obvious one: The act of rejection forces academics to take their papers back and polish them to make them even better.
But James Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, has an even more interesting explanation for what's happening.
These papers are getting rejected because they're novel. They're rejected because they don't fit the status quo. They're atypical. And so they face rejection from judges looking for things that support already held beliefs. It's their atypical talent that eventually ends up having the most impact.
They just had to stick through rejection long enough to finally get noticed.
Doug Plank wasn't talented in the way high school football players are supposed to be. He was small. Football scouts completely ignored him.
So, Doug decided he would "scout" himself.
After each of his games, he would write up a report of his own play and send it to the coach he'd always wanted to play for—Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State. Over and over again, Doug bugged Paterno with his letters.
Those letters eventually got Doug a meeting with Paterno.
In the end Paterno didn't bring Doug onto his team, but when another coach, Woody Hayes of Ohio State, got wind of Paterno talking with Doug, Woody got interested. And Woody Hayes gave Doug a scholarship to play for Ohio State.
The Bears would later take Doug as a forgettable 12th-round draft pick, but the Bears soon realized what they had on their hands—someone without typical football player attributes, but whose pure ferociousness would inspire and lead their team.
After Plank’s rookie NFL season, in which he led the Bears in tackles, Paterno began invoking the story as a cautionary tale. “Keep an open mind,” he’d tell his scouts. “One of the little guys might be another Doug Plank.”
Doug Plank was just like those researchers who got rejected over and over again. He didn't fit the mold of what the judges were looking for. But he put himself out there long enough, that when he finally got his shot, he proved to have an incredible impact.
In August 2007 at a Chicago networking event, I met Jason Fried, the founder of a company formerly known as 37signals. It was the first time we met, but I had been following 37signals already for a couple of years. His philosophies inspired me to start my own businesses like Inkling.
After our meetup, I began emailing him every six or 12 months trying to create some kind of relationship by offering whatever help I could. I'd let him know about a possible security concern in one of their applications like Basecamp, or an idea to improve the conversion rate of their signup page.
Of course, I didn't expect anything. Over the years, I've persistently cold-emailed hundreds of people about how my work or projects might be helpful to them. Most have been ignored. But every so often the persistence created something exciting.
One email to Jason led to me being listed as a security researcher for 37signals.
Later, another email convinced Jason to come on board as a product advisor to Draft, my software project to help people write better, and his feedback has been invaluable.
Well, seven years after we first met, those emails have created an even bigger opportunity.
Back in February this year, Jason announced that 37signals had renamed themselves Basecamp. They were going to focus on their flagship project management application. In the process, they were going to sell or spin-off their other successful and profitable applications like Highrise, a small business CRM tool.
And last week, Jason, his partner, David Heinemeier Hansson, and I signed a deal to spin off Highrise as its own company: a company I'm taking over as CEO.
Highrise is now a subsidiary of Basecamp. I'll have the continued support of the incredibly responsive customer support team and talented system admins, as well as Jason and David's input, to keep Highrise running and secure through a gradual transition. And soon you'll notice a great deal more attention and love brought to the product as I build out a team to focus on it.
It's an incredible opportunity for me, personally, but also one I hope is going to make a lot of Highrise customers very happy.
I couldn't help but remember Doug Plank, when I went back through my email and saw all the notes I've sent to Jason over the last seven years.
Doug is an inspiration in the way he played and practiced. But the most important thing to take from Doug was how persistent he was in letting people know he existed.
Even if we're working hard to become better entrepreneurs or employees, we need to work as equally hard, or more so, in communicating who we are, what we do, and how we can help. We need to learn how to write better, even if it's a simple email. We need to become better teachers, so we can build audiences of our own.
That way, when the time is right, opportunity will know our name.
[Image: Flickr user John Martinez Pavliga]