On a daily basis, he made 800 warm up baskets before his teammates even arrived at the gym. Minutes after a concussion and a broken nose courtesy of Dwayne Wade at 2012 All-Star game, he drained both free throws. When he got walloped at table tennis in the Lakers locker room, he bought an Olympics-grade ping pong table to redeem himself.

The late, legendary Kobe Bryant‘s competitiveness and tenacity are unforgettable. 

But there are other, more nuanced facets of his game that reveal how he imposed his will on the basketball world. These facets reveal insights that extend beyond basketball.

None was more powerful than his vision and his creativity. 

One Kobe story that captures this aspect of his game was how he studied the NBA referee’s handbook to find unseen advantages.

He discovered that referees have specific, predetermined assignments on the court from where they should officiate:

If the ball, for instance, is in place W, referees X, Y, and Z each have an area on the court assigned to them. When they do that, it creates dead zones, areas on the floor where they can’t see certain things

I learned where those zones were, and I took advantage of them. I would get away with holds, travels, and all sorts of minor violations simply because I took the time to understand the officials’ limitations. 

Kobe Bryant, Mamba Mentality

Let’s examine Kobe’s craftiness through the lens of how we, as entrepreneurs and knowledge workers, can apply similar vision and creativity to our work.

Look where no one else is looking

Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success is the best basketball book I’ve ever read. It is a masterclass in hoops. Do you know who else loves this book? The millions of other readers and basketball players that read it during its rise up the bestseller lists.

How many players have read the NBA referees handbook? A tiny fraction. I love basketball and have studied the game extensively, but I had never even considered the idea that the referee’s handbook even existed. 

By seeking out scarce information, Kobe exposed himself to rare ideas that few others had accessed.

Your field has its own set of canonical books. These books, written by the legends and luminaries of a discipline, are what everyone reads. If you’re a marketer, I’m talking about Seth Godin’s This is Marketing. If you’re in startups, I’m talking about Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. If you’re in real estate, I’m talking about Rich Dad, Poor Dad

What is your field’s secret handbook? Consider the following:

If you’re a…Consider researching…
Product marketer building an audienceAmazon product reviews of your competitors to better understand what your consumers want
Knowledge worker improving social skills Autobiographies of actors who worked in socially demanding jobs (waiters, bartenders, hair stylists, telemarketers) before fame
Entrepreneur seeking fundingVenture capital firm job postings. Hiring descriptions include skills requirements and desired areas of expertise, which signals future areas of strategic interest
Screenwriter seeking attention from producersThe Producers Guild email list to understand projects that pique producer interest
Software developer trying to write better codeDocumentation of earlier, outdated versions of a codebase, which reveals insights about the structure and logic that steered the code to its current state
Fashion Designer seeking new inspirationHistory books about countries known for producing your favorite fabrics

Lean into the boring

Ideally, you choose your field because something about it resonates. If you’re lucky, you wake up excited about the work. But the entire journey is not a thrill ride. Parts of it are a grind. 

Kobe’s desire to improve transcended his desire to stick to the fun and fast-moving parts of the game. 

Reading the NBA’s referee manual is a chore. The excerpt below addresses the intricacies of the Eight-Second Rule, which basically means “get the ball across the half-court line under eight seconds.“

Section VIII—Eight-Second Rule

A team shall not be in continuous possession of a ball which is in its backcourt for more than 8 consecutive seconds.

1. EXCEPTION (1): A new 8 seconds is awarded if the defense: (1) kicks or punches the ball, (2) is assessed a personal or technical foul, or (3) is issued a delay of game warning.

2. EXCEPTION (2): A new 8 seconds is awarded: (1) if play is suspended to administer Comments on the Rules—N—Infection Control, (2) when a team gains control of a jump ball in the backcourt, or (3) during a frontcourt throw-in into the backcourt in the last two minutes of the fourth and last two minutes of any overtime period.

3. PENALTY: Loss of ball. The ball is awarded to the opposing team at the midcourt line

So I have to ask: did you even read the excerpt above?

Or did you scan and skip it?

That was 136 words. Kobe read an entire book of that.

Some of the most valuable startups leaned into mind-numbing drudgery to create world changing companies. Stripe dug into the sleep-inducing depths of merchant payment processing to build a company so successful its valuation surpasses the GDP of several nations. 

In the early days of Stripe, the founders refined the product experience by grinding through hundreds of in-person product demos. In “Do Things that Don’t Scale,” Paul Graham writes:

Stripe was started by a few hundred instances of a “Collison Installation.” The founders, Patrick and John Collison, would ask friends in coffee shops or bars, “Will you try our beta version?” If they said yes, they didn’t do what most founders do and send them a link the next day. They immediately said, “Give me your laptop,” and set it up on the spot. 

Product demos are rarely fun. The 238th product demo is definitely not fun.

Look for your secret handbook

Kobe thought to acquire the referee handbook. And then he slogged through it. Finally, he made the connection that understanding referees’ assignments could uncover unseen advantages.

This final move—sparking insights through noticing opportunities that no one else sees—is a skill that can be cultivated and improved. By definition, uncovering these opportunities does not follow a standard process. If it was standardized, the insight ceases being innovative and becomes a commodity. It becomes “how business is done,” and, ironically, “by the book.”

Given that there is no standard process, the most important thing is to be aware that other, unseen opportunities exist. By simply keeping your eyes open, you cultivate a lens to notice possibilities when they arise.

Start looking for your secret handbook now.

The sooner you begin, the more time you have to hone your ability and compound the learning, just like Kobe’s 800 pre-practice shots. 

Cam Houser’s Actionworks runs workshops and innovation programs—which include the Kobe Bryant-inspired “Find Your Secret Handbook” exercise—for entrepreneurs and organizations.

Thanks to Sherlyn, Michael Minh Le, Daniel S Lee, Fran Cresswell-Ghose, Andrew Yu, Sean Collins, Jason Scott, Kyle Bowe, and Naseem Malik for reading drafts of this.