The Score Takes Care of Itself

The Score Takes Care of Itself

The Score Takes Care of Itself is one of those books that is a pure treasure trove of life philosophy. It's a collection of Bill Walsh's lessons and philosophies learned during his time coaching the San Francisco 49ers. Bill turned the 49ers from the worst team in the league to back-to-back Super Bowl champions in a matter of a few years.

I took too long to start this book because I'm 1) not much of a sports guy and 2) even less interested in football. But that said, I found it to be a very worthy read. It's always interesting studying different philosophies of great leaders, and The Score Takes Care of Itself gives you a front-row seat into Bill's particular leadership style.

I've tried to put into words why it works so well with football (as compared to business), and I think it's for a handful of reasons.

Football is a highly constrained game–everybody has to play by the same rules. So your strategy matters a lot. The little things you do to win are really important. With startups, there's a lot more randomness to finding product-market-fit, and even the best-executing startups may be smaller than poorly run startups in a better market.

Football is also limited in terms of the number of people. Unlike a startup that will hire like mad, a football team will only have a few dozen players, and then a handful of other administrative staff. The people, and their behavior, is critically important.

Increase probability of winning: prepare, prepare, prepare

Something that I think about a lot is "stochastics" vs "statistics". No matter what you do to prepare, there will always be some element of luck and randomness. But despite that, you want to do everything you can to build a culture of excellence and winning.

Bill Walsh echoed this idea too. There's maybe 80% of the game that you can control, 10% that comes down to the referees, and 10% that comes down to pure luck. You might as well make all of that 80% count!

Bill took the idea of prep to the nth-degree. He would have scenarios he'd plan for everything, any configuration of yardage, players, score, etc. He has a saying that none of us do our best work under pressure... and if you think you do, you're just fooling yourself. Plan for success. Plan for failure. Plan for everything.

There's also a gem here that when you do practice skills, tie them to their impact. "This is the play we'll run on saturday, it's going to be a great one."

Five do's and dont's

These particularly resonated with my life philosophy. I often get annoyed when people spend too long dwelling on some past slight. Better to focus on 1) what's in your control and 2) what you can do going forward.


  1. Do expect defeat. It's a given when the stakes are high and your competitors are fierce. If you are surprised when it happens, you're dreaming. Dreamers don't last long.
  2. Do force yourself to stop dwelling on whatever trainwreck you just left,
  3. Do give yourself appropriate recovery. Give yourself a little time to recuperate, if it's a bad situation, you need it.
  4. Do tell yourself you'll stand and fight again. When things are at their worst, you tend to be closer to success than you might imagine.
  5. Do begin planning for your next serious encounter


  1. Don't ask "why me?"
  2. Don't bellyache
  3. Don't expect sympathy
  4. Don't keep accepting condolences
  5. Don't blame others.

All of it encompasses the idea that it doesn't matter what came before... it just matters how you pick yourself up off the mat.

Connection and extension

The most important part of a team is having a shared goal–ensuring that everyone feels responsible for the teams success and its losses. If one person feels uniquely responsible for the success of the team, they are actually taking credit away from everyone else!

Bill labels this concept "connection" and "extension". You should feel connected to the team's main goal–and also feel like your work matters to achieve it. You're an extension of the core group.

That's why things like social ties are so important. They help you feel connected to everyone else, as well as an extension of their work.

The score takes care of itself

When turning around the 49ers, the second year that Bill was coach, they had the exact same record: 2-14. It's a terrible record by all accounts, and if you were going purely based upon the score, you'd think the team had made no improvements whatsoever.

Bill said that in terms of setting goals and looking at progress, he pays the most attention to the fundamentals. It doesn't matter what the outcome of the game is, mostly just the standard of excellence applied to it.

It's important that teammates understand your philosophy

Every year, Bill would sit his team down and explain his philosophy in detail. He'd spend hours going through long printouts of what he expected from every single member of the organization.

I haven't actually seen a leader do this before (aside from perhaps Joe coming in and running Quarterly Business Reviews), but it seems wildly effective.

From my own observations, I think we live in an age where there's a bit too much of a focus around avoiding micro-management. While micro-management can be incredibly toxic, too many managers move in the opposite direction and instead don't make their expectations clear (I've been guilty of this myself).

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

This is an old and maybe obvious phrase, but Bill highlights that it's important to think ask oneself: "what are my untapped resources?"

For the Bengals (where Bill was pre-49ers) it was several things...

  • a quarterback with a high IQ who remained composed, but had a weak arm
  • an offense who could practice exact plays over and over
  • a coach who was willing to try something new

That led Bill to develop an offense that emphasized short passes rather than running plays or really deep 'hail mary' style passes–later dubbed the "west coast offense". If you're ever struggling with something that isn't working, maybe it's time to ask what you are uniquely good at that might just work.

Competition is an evolving game

At the highest levels, there's an evolving "meta game" that happens.

An example: most quarterbacks have a 'blind spot' which is opposite whichever arm they throw with. If they throw with their right hand, they will have to turn their back to the left.

Apparently one ferocious opponent (Lawrence Taylor?) was both incredibly big and incredibly fast. He would crash through the blind spot repeatedly. He crashed into an opposing quarterback so hard that the quarterback's knee bones popped out of his skin!

Walsh knew he had to not only protect his Quarterback, but his Quarterback's safety. So he started adjusting his game to contend with the new tactics employed by Taylor by switching the side he'd defend.

I've noticed this in Battlecode at MIT, and I've heard the same thing happens in Magic The Gathering. I think this tends to matter less in startups when it comes to things like product-market-fit (paying attention to a competitor will usually lead you astray), but makes a lot of sense when all startups compete for the same resources (talent, investment, attention).

The common trait amongst leaders: force of will

Ali at YC has a fantastic presentation on leadership–and in it he mentions that there is no single mould for a leader. It all comes down to being true to yourself, and a high-integrity person.

Walsh has a similar commentary amongst his apprentices. Each of them had very a different demeanor..

  • Mike Holmgren: relaxed
  • Tom Landry: stoic
  • Jimmy Johnson: charismatic salesman

But all of them shared a force of will. You knew they were going to get what they wanted.

When to change strategy

If you are the leader, you have to chart the course. You have to make the decisions and the tough calls.

How do you know when to change strategy?

Don't make decisions...

  1. to prove yourself right (or for ego)
  2. to prove somebody else wrong

Do make decisions based upon logical reasoning and a clear strategy.

Have a hard edge

You have to know when to exercise a hard edge in exchange for unacceptable behavior. One of his linemen nearly hurt Joe Montana in a practice by laying into him. He was asked to leave immediately.

The best leaders are teachers

I loved the section which made a case that the best leaders are also the best teachers. They not only can discover greatness in their team, but they can teach the members of that team how to achieve their full potential.

Teaching requires...

  • deep knowledge. if you don't have the core fundamental knowledge, your team will sense it and realize that you aren't the expert in the room
  • excitement, energy, and passion. for every single one of his plays, Bill would come up with them with both energy and excitement. he'd introduce it by saying "this one will really get them."
  • you have to adjust the message to the audience, and very the presentation style. explain differently to a 5-year veteran vs a new rookie.
  • clarity and concise-ness. we all love to hear ourselves talk, but that's not the best way to learn.

Apply mastery and expertise

It's hard to trust somebody who "doesn't have all the answers". Your organizations will pick up on it. They'll know you aren't the person to make the call, and somebody else is.

I was struck by how much joy Bill seems to get from every aspect of the game: the play calls, what to do in every situation. He clearly loved every minute of what he did, and was in pursuit of nothing less than perfection. He'd spend every waking moment thinking about plays he could run, and ways he could perform better.

You're only as good as your bottom 20%

If the role and bench players at a company don't feel valued, they won't perform at a high level. You need every part of the organization to feel excited about they contribute to the whole.