Throwback Thursday: The Sam Hinkie Resignation Letter as Literature
One year ago, Sam Hinkie's 13-page resignation letter brought The Process era to an end in Philadelphia. That work continues, but Hinkie's letter is history.
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Every year, Warren Buffett sends twenty or so pages of extremely good news to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. Because Buffett is rich, famous, and historically good at his job, even people who are not fortunate enough to be Berkshire Hathaway shareholders read these letters; it almost certainly helps that Buffett is a charming enough writer, at least within the limitations of a form that requires him to talk a lot about how good GEICO's management team is, but that's a second-order thing. They're pleasant enough to read—Berkshire Hathaway has put 30 years of these letters online—but also these are not necessarily things that anyone reads for pleasure.
They have also had a lively downstream life. Buffett was not the first person to write such letters to his shareholders, but he objectively revolutionized the form; a shareholder letter from, say, Amazon's Jeff Bezos swaps Buffett's rhetorical warmth and coy folksiness for Amazon's signature predatory stridency, but the influence is unmistakable. There are a few dozen literary genres that you might rank above it, but it is at least an identifiable literary form. "From the literary-critical point of view, there is always going to be a difficulty with the genre of the investor's letter," the novelist and critic John Lanchester wrote in The New Yorker. "What we're dealing with here, in essence, is rich people wanting more money. That creates issues of tone."
When Sam Hinkie resigned from his position as General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers last April—under pressure and after nearly three years on the job—he wrote a letter. In point of fact, it was a letter of resignation. Only Hinkie chose as his form and inspiration not some previous letter of resignation, but rather the Buffett-style investor letter. "Atul Gawande, a Surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, remains (from afar) one of my favorite reads," Hinkie writes near the top of his 13-page letter to the Sixers' shareholders. "He laughs that reading scientific studies has long been a guilty pleasure. Reading investor letters has long been one of mine." And so, as a last indulgence to himself and in his last official act at the organization, Hinkie wrote one.
In theory, the letter is an explanation and defense of Hinkie's signature achievement, which was stripping the Sixers all the way down in the present and stockpiling potentially valuable future assets, to be cashed in at some future time TBD. As it exists, however, the letter's energy is less a justification for The Process as a basketball strategy and the individual sub-tactics that comprised it, and more an attempt to situate Hinkie within the broader intellectual tradition of what we might as well call Success Studies. This is an industry that orbits other industries—tech, now, mostly, although finance and industry have had their turns—and which explicitly concerns itself with the celebration and analysis and speculative reverse-engineering of wealth-generation. It is not just about successful people, although it is often about successful people, so much as it is about Success as a sort of latent superpower that can be, if not necessarily emulated, at least somewhat unlocked by degrees.
To put things another way: Warren Buffett's letters to his shareholders are what they are; the many books that strip-mine them for tricks and lessons and 9 Essential Habits are Success Studies.
Literarily, and also in many other ways, this is honestly a pretty shitty tradition. Its defining trait, as writing, is a sort of oracular triumphalism that springs from the specific sort of self-infatuation that is only available to people with very large and very diversified portfolios. The tone that results from this is leisurely and smug and orotund; it's the sound of someone who is convinced that he is very interesting indeed, dictating his memoirs into a mirror. As an intellectual tradition, Success Studies is loose and lazy enough to enfold an entire cretinous universe—airport-bookstore tomes about management; TED Talks and their higher-priced corporate event cousins in which a serious man in a turtleneck lays out the various ways to maximize your Personal Skill Stack; the garbage koans of off-brand online lifehack gurus; and the unhurried suasion of the Investor Letter. It is, for all its fixations on restlessness and failure and competitiveness, luxury content.
Hinkie plugs right into this literary tradition, to excruciating effect. His letter is so jargon-strewn and reiterative and afflicted with weird curlicues of justification and decontextualized citation that it would not really read differently if whole paragraphs were moved around at random. The experience, for a reader, is like going through a page-a-day calendar of Classic Management Aphorisms from New Year's Day all the way through to New Year's Eve. The language is about what you'd expect if you have experienced the signature syntax of Success Studies. "Woodshed" is used as a verb, as are "storytell" and "repotted." There is a deployment of "non-consensus" as an adjective; "hack" and "spend" are used as nouns.
For all its literary offenses, though, Hinkie's letter is a sterling example of its degraded genre. It is about success not just as the result of a series of processes—although it is unfailingly, if a bit repetitively, defined as such—but as a way of being, not so much a life's pursuit as a lifestyle in itself. It does not necessarily sound like fun. As a lifestyle, Success Studies fetishizes not just work but also anxiety, regret, failure. All that painful stuff is cushioned in artifice, at least relative to the way that many millions of people experience those things; the failure that Hinkie admits haunted him, that he still shuddered over as he wrote the letter, was losing Robert Covington to another NBA Summer League team in 2013. That abstraction, and the queasy, chosen leisure-anxiety that defines it, is inherent to the Success Lifestyle. It is a rich person's thing, and exists on an Olympian scale. If Amazon fails, it learns a lesson and takes a write-off. If a person fails, it's not quite so simple. Hinkie is a person, but his letter is him opting into accepting the lesson-and-a-write-off suite of consequences.
Stylistically, Hinkie's letter is mostly exhausting. It is sublimely difficult to read for someone who is not familiar with the genre of Success Studies, especially in its ruminative and philosophical first half. That section, which has the heading Thinking About Thinking, works as a sort of mission statement. Here are the subheadings within it: The Importance Of Intellectual Humility. The Necessity Of Innovation. The Longest View In The Room. A Contrarian Mindset. A Tolerance Of Uncertainty. Be Long Science. A Healthy Respect For Tradition. A Reverence For Disruption. Only after that does Hinkie turn to Investment Objectives, which is where he assesses the progress of The Process and mostly spends a few thousand words ostentatiously circling the comparatively uncomplicated sentiment we're trying to become a good basketball team at some point.
Basketball-wise, nothing about The Process is especially difficult to explain nor particularly revolutionary beyond the scale at which Hinkie's front office put it all into effect. Draft good players and develop them patiently; stash as many promising prospects as possible wherever you can; pay players as little as possible, give yourself as many chances as possible to succeed, take the time to let it all play out. Buy low, sell high, stockpile more lottery tickets than the guy in the next cubicle. We are firmly in the realm of No Shit. Hinkie acknowledges that this is "nothing new, just the same typeface bolded. It requires deep player evaluations around the globe, is helped by a network of international relationships, and most of all, patience." This is true enough as far as it goes, but as an editor, it is tempting to cross it all out and write "just say Do What The Spurs Do, here" in the margins.
Hinkie acknowledges this, too, and certainly understands it. But the sublimely unhurried and protracted presentation of it all, all those piquant quotes from Max Planck and Charlie Munger and Bezos and the showy sub-headings—A Larger Quiver almost backs into something literary—are part of the performance. It's not the ordinary investor letter performance, because this is also a resignation letter from someone who presided over years of historic short-term failure; there is no leverage to lever, and there is no case to be made beyond a somewhat grandiose self-defense plea. But it's performative all the same. The Process was always valued over the immediate results; that was the whole idea, and also what made it so difficult to gainsay or falsify or, eventually, justify. The letter can be read as a defense of The Process, an ode to that work that's first ideological, then stylistic, and only later grounded in metric and measurement. This seems to be precisely the inverse of how The Process might best be defended, but we might as well presume that, as author of both The Process and the last brief filed in its defense, this is the order in which Hinkie felt comfortable, or anyway felt interested, in defending it. Hinkie's gambit is mostly to establish that The Process really was as innovative and disruptive as he believed it to be; as Success Studies sees those things as objectively good, that would be sufficient justification.
In the high Buffett-ian fashion, Hinkie's letter also contains little intermittent burps of folksiness, generally delivered in the same tone of lightly toasted wonderment that let Steve Jobs use phrases like "dent the universe" when talking about a phone that also takes photographs. "Lifelong learning is where it's at" is my favorite one of these. These are mixed in with aphoristic bits of managerial dada: "Wins are a zerogrowth industry," "Use a decision journal," "Grit matters," "Science is about predictions." Quotes from famous Successful People are studded liberally throughout, if generally not asked to do very much work. "Lincoln said that to meet with the public 'renewed in me my perceptions of responsibility and duty,'" Hinkie writes. "Those words rang hollow until we moved here and I talked with our fans."
This is all perfectly ridiculous, of course, as much so this year as it was last year, and probably about as much as it will be next year. But while it would be easy to keep kicking around the letter, doing so would obscure what is actually revealing about it. It's remarkable how much labor Hinkie puts into making what are, at bottom, often luridly anodyne points. Here, for instance, is Hinkie's gloss on the ambiguity inherent to player evaluation: "Phil Tetlock, from just down the street at Penn, addresses this well in his most recent remarkable book Superforecasting where he quotes the great Amos Tversky saying, "In dealing with probabilities...most people only have three settings: "gonna happen," "not gonna happen," and "maybe"." This is not merely bad writing—which is fine, the Sixers did not hire Hinkie to write—but wasteful, even decadent bad writing.
It's possible to read all this—the circular self-obsessions, the cretinous sophistication, the various blinkered fixations that make it all so denuded and arch and inhuman—as symptoms of a broader and possibly terminal decadence loose in the culture. If you want, Success Studies can be read as the rituals of a culture that outlasted or outgrew its values and declined into the worship of omens and signs, ultimately elevating the rituals themselves over whatever purpose or notional godhead they once served. It's something somehow both tackier and sadder than materialism—it is materialism talked about in the same ways and with the same reverence that people have traditionally brought to great existential questions. You can read it all that way if you like, and you'd probably be at least somewhat correct in doing so. But there's something simpler and more hopeful threaded through this grim quilt that is important to recognize.
The Process, as a team-building strategy, was not complicated enough to be very interesting. Moment by moment and deal by deal, it absolutely was, but on its own merits there is no philosophical depth to it, let alone any finer human attribute on the order of courage or belief. It's just an attempt to, as Hinkie has it, "gain a competitive advantage that had a chance to be lasting." It's a thing a business does. All the triumphal tootling that Hinkie retroactively wraps this in looks ridiculous and strained because it is ridiculous and strained. The Process as Hinkie undertook it was a business gambit, and is interesting in that way and as that thing, and only as that. But also that is not all that The Process is, or what it means.
What is interesting about The Process, and what is vital about it, is less about the strategic territory that it staked out and more about the various weird human beings that have homesteaded in that space. The human resources that cycled through the Sixers roster during The Process years each left some idiosyncratic mark on it; the few that stayed became a part of the deeper human work of becoming a team. The people that stuck around through The Process used those years of abjection as an excuse to dream of a brighter future; in doing all that, in their various fan communities, they built in the hopeless present a new and communal vision of what it meant to care about a basketball team. All of this meaning and rude beauty was catalyzed not by Success but by failure. Not failure as Success Studies understands it—the humanizing stuff from early in a rich man's memoir, the corporate value that is really just a synonym for being rich enough to carry a certain amount of risk—but something more like real failure as it is lived and understood here in the world. There is nothing inherently ennobling, let alone strategic, about losing to Sacramento by 21 points on a Tuesday night. The interesting thing about it, always, is what we make of loss, and the shelter and tools that we fashion from the shards of that failure. Incidentally, that also happens to be the dramatic action of more or less every interesting story that has ever been told. Success, as Success Studies understands it, is boring—it's neutered and neutral and crushingly narcissistic, isolated and wary and terrified, but mostly no fun at all. Compared to that, failure seems like a much more appealing proposition.
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