Around a month ago, I found an incredibly insightful quote deep in the Reddit comments about a particular basketball player who had recently changed teams.

People who try hard to win first and foremost make it uncomfortable when people are trying to just have a good time and do well. And this is aside from whether they're assholes or not, unscrupulous or not. It's about win first vs chill first.

At some point, there's always a conflict between the two types. Someone has to chill, someone has to turn up the intensity, or someone has to leave.

- Source, minor formatting cleanup and emphasis added

Now, I'm not a particularly avid follower of sports. But this was a rather unusually fascinating case.

To simplify a very long story, there's a professional basketball team — the Philadelphia 76ers — that on paper have had a lot of really good players the last few years, yet have consistently underperformed expectations.

Last year, they traded for a player who is known as being super-crazy-hardcore-intense. That player was Jimmy Butler, who was an unheralded quite low draft pick (the 30th player chosen his year, meaning almost every team passed on him at least once) who worked very, very hard to turn himself into a star. 

He wasn't one of those players who was really good right when joined the League — he didn't start in pro basketball until he was 22 years old, and wasn't really good until he was 25. 

His career stats are here; you don't need to know much about basketball to see the trend of going from scoring 2.6 points per game your first year in the league, to 8.6 your second, to 13.1 your third year, to 20.0 your fourth year in the league is (1) someone who was not-at-all "anointed" or had an easy path for himself, and (2) showed really incredible year-over-year improvements. 

Eventually, Jimmy became a consistent All-Star.

Last year, he joined the Philadelphia 76ers.

And it didn't go very well.

Although much of the story is secondhand and hearsay, apparently Jimmy Butler didn't get along with everyone else on the 76ers. During a film session to prepare for an upcoming opponent, there were reports that other players were sleeping or goofing around and Jimmy shouted at them.

Jimmy would yell at people who weren't training hard at practice, get under his teammate's skins, etc. If anyone wanted to relax and refused to go full-out competitive in pursuit of being the best individual player they could be, the best teammate they could be, and giving their utmost towards every game — Jimmy wasn't having it. 

And the 76ers, by all accounts, had something of a "chill first" culture, despite having — on paper — really really good players. Anyway, much of this is hearsay but some of it isn't — obvious examples being when a coach publicly instructed one player who refused to follow instructions, a star player being noticeably out of shape and heavyset and suffering at the end of games, things like that.

Of course, these are still some of the finest athletes in the world — but the 76ers didn't have whatever that fanatic intensity that Michael Jordan was famous for, with all its advantages towards winning along with all its undeniable nasty side effects on stress and toxicity and lack of amicability.

Well, at the end of last season, Jimmy Butler's contract expired and he left the Philadelphia 76ers. 

He went from Philadelphia to a team that missed the playoffs entirely that year, the Miami Heat, saying he went just because the culture there was intense and he felt his intensity would be appreciated there. 

Jimmy Butler was roundly mocked for his decision. On paper, the 76ers looked like one of the best teams in basketball and the Miami Heat looked like a very subpar team.

Well, one year later, the 76ers just underperformed and were eliminated early again this year — and the team Jimmy Butler joined, Miami (which missed the playoffs last year)... is now heading to the NBA Finals as of tonight. 

There's no doubt in my mind that there's a lot of people more content than Jimmy Butler, more amicable than Jimmy Butler, way more fun to chill out with than Jimmy Butler... there's not a single doubt in my mind that there are very many downsides to that fanatic junkyard dog mentality, that it's incredibly stressful, often painful, risks destroying relationships and discordancy rather than the more guaranteed affability and amicability of "chill first, don't worry about it"...

... and yet, y'know, I saved this comment over a month ago, before any of this could be truly foreseen, since it seemed to sum up a point rather elegantly:

People who try hard to win first and foremost make it uncomfortable when people are trying to just have a good time and do well. And this is aside from whether they're assholes or not, unscrupulous or not. It's about win first vs chill first.

At some point, there's always a conflict between the two types. Someone has to chill, someone has to turn up the intensity, or someone has to leave.

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20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:50 AM

I think the proper lesson here is that the absence of a culture of excellence can destroy the potential of even very talented people. But that culture of "win first" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory. Otherwise, the Miami Heat would have made the playoffs without Jimmy Butler.

You need to value excellence and intensity, but also to be excellent.

We see this in our forced group projects in my undergraduate classes. The best students (mostly post-baccs like myself in our community college setting) try to band together as often as possible. We know that we can trust each other to do good work. And we know that our mutual devotion to high-quality work will be appreciated, so we don't have to do any apologetics or song and dance routine to motivate each other.

My two takeaways:

  • If you feel like you're not making as much progress as you want, maybe the problem is you need to work much, much harder than seems reasonable to the people around you, or even to yourself.
  • If you're working your ass off and it's annoying the people around you, time to find a place where your intensity will be appreciated.

Great comment. Insightful phrasing, examples, and takeaways. Thank you.

I agree with all this and think it can be generalized even more.

Whenever there are multiple ways to define success of a system, the parts of the system need to be aligned on which one they are going for. The whole can be less than the sum of its parts if not.

I agree that win-first and chill-first personalities often clash, but there are two (implicit?) points that I... I wouldn't say I disagree with them, but I am unsure of them, or maybe bearish about them.

1) That win-first and chill-first personalities can't mesh.

I think that they can. For example, imagine if Jimmy Butler was the "keep my head down and work hard" type instead of the "in your face work hard" type. The later can be thought of as a type A personality, and the former a type B personality. I think the lesson here is a more general one of type A personalities clashing, not specific to win-first vs. chill-first.

Another lesson might be that when working in groups, it's important to be adaptable. Ask yourself, "What mindset would best help my group achieve it's task (my team win a championship)?" Maybe the answer to that is to get all Michael Jordan in-your-face-intense. But it's also possible that the answer is to chill and fit in.

2) That win-first is optimal (in the NBA and similar situations).

They certainly make for a great narrative, but there are also counter-examples (sort of).

  • If you look at players who's careers took a sharp downward turn and never panned out, burnout, stress and anxiety are themes that keep coming up. To use an extreme example, Andrei Kirilenko ended up getting addicted to WoW. Kevin Love talked about how anxiety and expectations affected his game (and more recently Paul George). Then there's a bunch of examples of careers being killed by drugs. I suspect that the win-first pedal-to-the-floor mindset contributes to all of this and that putting your pedal to the floor a) can only be taken so far and b) requires a certain psychological skillset as a prerequisite (something I've personally screwed up, have been meaning to write about, and is one of the first things I'd tell my past self).
  • Sports and exercise science have been showing us more and more how important rest and recovery are. This isn't necessarily incompatible with win-first, but in practice I think a lot of win-first types tend to wave their hands at it. Same story in the intellectual world.
  • Greg Popovich, one of the best coaches of all time, is famous for his team dinners. He knows when to focus on basketball, and when to take his foot off the pedal. "'Hey, we're together' Popovich tells his troops after the 103-81 loss. 'Let's eat. That's basketball. ... We'll get back to work tomorrow.' The Spurs close out the series in the next game." I could imagine a win-first type insisting that "chilling" over dinner like this is wrong and instead calling everyone to the gym.

I guess my point isn't against win-first — to be a world class performer I think you do have to hit that gear sometimes — it's just that there are caveats and that it has to be executed properly.

I agree that win-first and chill-first personalities often clash

I suspect it's not right to call them personalities: personally I know that I can be either win-first or chill-first, depending on what the situation is and what my priorities are.

I'd expect any non-seriously-depressed person to be win-first with regard to some issue that matters a lot to them, and conversely, being win-first on something forces you to be chill-first on something else, since you can't put 100% effort into everything you do.

[Epistemic status: anecdata and perspective generation]

I think it's not right in the general case, but it may be more right than not as an approximation here, since what's described might be indicative of defaults regarding intensity. In my experience, default intensities do feel roughly bimodal among my peers, and in fact one of my current life strategy issues is to figure out how not to fall too far into line with the less-intense subset that currently dominate my social graph.

Another read on that might be that even when the resultant intensities differ widely between activities and situations and may overlap or cross over between a “win-first” individual and a “chill-first” individual, there's still an underlying difference in something like focus, salience, or differential habituation to up-regulation versus down-regulation of intensity.

From the perspective of a 76er, Jimmy Butler seems like a servant of Moloch.

The 76ers are NBA players.  They've worked to their limits all throughout high school and college to get there. Now they're semi-wealthy and semi-famous and still pretty young.  I can completely understand why they think it's time to enjoy life.*  The cheerleaders are right there, for crying out loud.

If Jimmy Butler got his way, some of them would start working harder.  They'd get recognition in the short run, but pretty quickly it would become a culture where the higher standard of effort was obligatory.  They would all do more of what they don't enjoy and less of what they do enjoy.  They might win more games, for what that's worth.  They would get little of value for the extra sacrifice.  So they don't.

*Keeping in mind that even a "lazy" NBA player is well within the top 1% of Americans for physical effort.

Interesting.  I'm trying to fit this Peter Thiel's thoughts that startups need BOTH competitive spirits (win first) and cooperative spirits (maybe not chill first but perhaps "cooperate first").

One way to point at the difference in perspectives is to simply say that "cooperative" and "chill first" are different... but in my mind they seem to be  pointing at similar perspectives.

Interesting thought yeah.

My first guess is there's some overlap but it's slightly orthogonal — btw, it might not have come across in original post, but Butler is a really well-loved teammate who is happy to defer to other guys on his team, set them up for success, etc. He doesn't need to be "the guy" any given night — he just wants his team to win with a rather extreme fervor about it.

Yeah, when Thiel is talking about cooperation vs. competition, he's also not talking about being a team player vs needing to be the star- he's talking about the relation to either ignoring competition and just focusing on creating a good product, or specifically worrying about your competitors and figuring out how you can beat them.

In Thiel's world which of these is better?

He says good startup teams need people with both attitudes.

If you were Jimmy Butler, you might have needed to have kind of an antagonistic attitude toward other people to put in that kind of work without the encouragement of the people around you. He might have needed a sort of "fuck you" approach to get as good as he did. There's a difference between having the kind of attitude that lets you get good, and the kind of attitude that encourages others to get as good as you.

Interesting! I have often seen this difference when playing board games with friends. There are some who will take forever to make each move because they want to win first. Whereas for me the point of playing a game is to chill first.

With the right mindset and equipment and game type, you can add timers and points for staying X amount in-bounds and let the win-firsts include time taken as a first-class citizen in their evaluation of moves. I believe the best outcome I've ever had when doing this was to take two win-firsts (myself and a friend) and reduce our playtime of Mage Knight by a factor of almost 3x. And it was still very fun for both of us! The marginal gain of most of the thinking is small, so adding a small point penalty to "overthinking" is plenty sufficient to pare it down drastically.

I never thought I'd be posting about my mancrush here on LessWrong... but Heat’s Udonis Haslem ‘ain’t really here trying to be friends with nobody provides more context into the Heat's win-first culture.

“I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want to feel like home. I don’t want to get relaxed. I want to keep my edge. I want to stay focused on the task at hand. So, I’m sleeping on the couch right now, dog, with a room full of Chunky soup.”

What kind of impact have you had on Heat culture?

I don’t say much, but I want to let everybody know, make no mistake, when you come to this locker room, I’m who you got to answer to. We have a lot of leaders on this court. Dwyane was the greatest player to ever come through the Miami Heat organization. He is the leader on the court. LeBron [James], all those dudes. … I understand who scores all the points, but when you come in that locker room and you got to get with this culture, and the expectations of what we expect from you, I’m who you got to deal with. You see how that works out for some people. Everybody ain’t built for it.

For the people who don’t know, how would you define the culture?

If I’m 40 years old, and 6% body fat, I go running and do 10 suicide [sprints]. What do you think I’m going to expect out of a 22-year-old? I have no understanding why you can’t. There is no, ‘I can’t.’

Now that you’re seeing Butler up close, what makes him special?

You don’t see guys that attack every game and every possession and really try to win every game and every possession. This league, you’ll see a guy that’ll say, ‘We’ll get on the next game. I’ll take this possession off and take a break.’ I know guys that rest throughout the game. I was never one of those guys that rested throughout the game. I literally tried to play every possession as hard as I could, offensively or defensively.

That’s what I love about Jimmy. He literally doesn’t give a s—. Don’t care who he got to guard, really doesn’t care. He’s going to play as hard as he physically can, every possession. I never have to have a conversation with Jimmy about his effort. Never. That’s what I love about him.

Great post.

I’m not parsing this line, what did the coach do? I don’t get why instructing a player would be embarrassing.

...obvious examples being when a coach publicly instructed one player who refused to follow instructions, a star player being noticeably out of shape and heavyset and suffering at the end of games, things like that

It'd take a few paragraphs to tell the whole story if you don't already follow basketball, but this —

Long story really short, the 76ers have a player who is an incredible athlete but doesn't feel comfortable taking jump shots far away from the basketball hoop.

Thus, defenses can ignore him when he's out on the perimeter.

His coach told him publicly to take one 3-point shot per game. Coach said he doesn't even care if he hits it or not.

The player basically refused to do it. 

It's more detailed than that, but the 80/20 is a young incredible athlete with immense potential on the team refused to follow his coach's (incredibly reasonable) instruction. 

In most sports and at most levels of play in sports, that'd get you benched by the coach. 

But in the NBA, when a coach and star player feud, the coach gets fired around 9 times out of 10. (The other time, the star player gets traded. But the coach usually gets fired first in the NBA.)

Thx for the explanation!