Back when it seemed that no one would ever beat him, back when he was on the cover of countless magazines, Mike Tyson was asked about an upcoming fight and his opponent’s plans to beat the unbeatable fighter. Tyson replied, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Great line, it made headlines, he won again. Tyson was actually quoting the great Joe Louis, Louis said “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” That quote had lain dormant for decades until Tyson resurrected it.
In either version, nowadays the quote is extensively employed. It seems as if its used mainly to illustrate (if not champion) the idea that audacity and force either stuns or disables planning. It’s a kind of bravado.
I was reminded of this quote – in a very roundabout way – by a passage in Ronald White’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant. It’s about Grant’s first experience with the Army of the Potomac after he was installed as the Commander-in-Chief of all the Union Armies in 1864.
Grant chose to go into the field with the Army of the Potomac rather than sit in Washington and ‘manage’ the war from there. In joining the Army of the Potomac he was joining an army that was, at best, dysfunctional. An army that had been soundly beaten in almost every battle it had ever fought against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia except Gettysburg. And, that was close. Very close.
The Army of the Potomac, then, wasn’t Grant’s army, he was, in essence, the new Chairman of the Board, management stayed the same. He did, however, order the offensive in May, 1864 that resulted in the Battle of the Wilderness.
The Army of the Potomac attacked on May 5th and suffered a severe setback. All the while, Grant, stoic, sat and observed George Meade and his generals as they conducted the battle. He received updates but otherwise kept to himself and watched, listened.
That night, when it was crystal clear that the day had been horrific for the Union forces, several officers took it upon themselves to tell Grant about the horrible things Robert E. Lee was probably out there in the dark getting ready to do the the Northerners. Dire warnings of flank attacks and utter destruction.
Grant was famous for being implacable. That implacability snapped after about ten minutes of ‘Lee-will-do-this-to-us’ warnings.
He exploded, “I’m damned tired of hearing what Lee is going to do to us … it is about time we start talking about what we are going to do to him.” The battle resumed the next morning, the North fought to a draw, moved south the next day and began the offensive that eventually ended the war.
Then, there was the Superbowl Sunday night. You may have heard that the New England Patriots were down 28-3 in the third quarter then scored thirty-one straight points to win it in overtime. It was the greatest comeback (by far) in Super Bowl history and fifth greatest in the history of the NFL – for any game.
There’s been a lot of writing about how and why this happened. As the 3rd quarter ended the Patriots had a .04% chance of winning. Yet they did. The best explanation I’ve read on why this happened was in FiveThirtyEight. They simply stated that in the second half the ‘Patriots went back to being the Patriots and the Falcons went back to being the Falcons.’ What they meant was that the Patriots played the first half as a shadow of their usual selves while the Falcons played out of their minds good – virtually perfect.
They went on to cite the fact that despite getting blown out the Patriots approached the second half like they always approached a second half. They made some changes to counteract what the Falcons were doing, then they executed their game plan as if the score was 0-0. The rest is history.
So, here’s what hit me with all this – the important thing, the really important thing in life and business and sports and everything else – is to have a plan for what to do after you get punched in the mouth.
That’s the thing. Grant was a great planner. Bill Belichick is . . . well, Bill Belichick. With them, it’s all about contingencies for contingencies. Their planning included contingencies for getting hit. Hard.
Good planning, then, plans for getting smashed in the mouth. And for what to do while it still hurts.