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Better, Part 2: Lessons from Rafael Nadal

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Rafael Nadal

I use the word 'better' a lot. UrbanForm's mission is to support and empower the people trying to make better buildings, cities, and environments. But what does it take to try for 'better'?

Two years ago, the governing body of professional tennis, the ATP did a study of 13 million professional tennis points played over almost three decades. From 1991-2020, they found that Rafael Nadal won the greatest percentage of points played. Rafa's percentage of points won? 56.41%.

He won just slightly more than 56% of his points, yet he is arguably the most dominant tennis player ever.

For comparison, you could also look up the percentage of points won by Markus Hipfl, a player who in that same time period was ranked in the low-to-mid 1,000s (though for one year, he briefly broke into the top 100). Markus Hipfl's point win percentage? 55.60%.

Markus Hipfl

The difference between one of the greatest players in the history of the game and somebody who was ranked in the thousands? Less than one percent.

Think about that razor-thin difference for a moment. On any given tennis point, less than one percent difference in the probability of winning that point separates the greatest player ever, richly rewarded to the point of playing tennis with a million dollar Richard Mille watch on his arm, from someone who barely has any photos available on the internet of him playing tennis.

There's a couple of ways to look at this. On the one hand, it makes you marvel at the number of good tennis players in this world. There's a lot of good players, and relatively little separates them. This probably applies in many professions.

On the other hand, what are those differences that separates them? You could come up with a thousand reasons, and some would be more meaningful differences, and some others less so. But in totality, they would all add up to less than one percent.

That one percent is a meaningful difference. And searching for those little differences, even if they feel slight, can make a big impact.

These same lessons can apply to architectural practice as well. Creating better architecture and better practice means constantly searching for those small things; looking for incremental improvements, learning from results, and a willingness to change and adapt.

“We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right - one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.” --Atul Gawande

In Part 3, what the Cheesecake Factory can teach us about "better"

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