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How a World Class Golfer Taught a Master Class in Critical Thinking

Have you ever made a major mistake at work? Jordan Spieth's recent performance will show you how to turn things around.

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A couple years ago, American Jordan Spieth became the second youngest golfer to win three major tournaments when he took home the trophy at the British Open.

But the manner in which he won, by turning a disastrous shot into something manageable, and then maintaining composure to play extremely well on the final holes, was absolute brilliance. One 30-year golf journalist described Spieth’s play on the last nine holes as among “the most compelling golf theater I have ever witnessed.”

The Wall Street Journal described the scene:

The pivotal sequence of the final round–how Spieth recovered from a horrendous tee shot on the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale–wasn’t merely an exercise in shot-making under duress. It was also a test of Spieth’s ability to consider a multitude of options under the rules and determine which ones would give him the best odds of mitigating the damage to his score.

The process took more than 20 minutes, sent hordes of spectators and cameramen scrambling to keep up, required the help of rules officials and marshals and included the surreal sight of Spieth navigating his way around equipment trucks. It also proved to be a defining moment in Spieth’s career, which is on a trajectory to put him among the game’s all-time greats.

Whether or not you enjoy the game of golf, you’ll benefit from a breakdown of Spieth’s critical thinking. In summing up what happened next, I’ll show how Spieth’s performance is a masterclass in how to do great work.

1. He didn’t let his mistake paralyze him.

After his disastrous shot, Spieth didn’t pout or feel sorry for himself. Instead, he paused and thought, then decided to take advantage of the unplayable lie rule, “which allows players to declare a ball unplayable and, with a one-stroke penalty, drop it in another spot no closer to the hole.”

At this point, most players would have chosen simply to return to the tee box, in essence starting the hole over (already a stroke behind, of course).

Instead, Spieth chose another option, which allows players to take the ball as far as they want in a straight line. Spieth eventually realized that doing so would allow him to return to the driving range–a position that might give him the best shot at salvaging the hole.

Takeaway: Mistakes happen every day. Sometimes big ones.

If you commit one, don’t just sit and let things happen. Take a moment to gather yourself, consider your options, and make the best of a bad situation.

2. He knew his craft.

Spieth was then faced with another problem. His view from the driving range was blocked by a row of equipment trucks that fell under the category “temporary immovable obstructions.”

But Spieth knew another rule that would allow him to drop his ball just next to the truck, as long as he didn’t gain any advantage by moving closer to the hole. After confirming with officials, that’s exactly what he did.

Takeaway: This move wasn’t luck. It was drawing on previous knowledge, thousands of hours of study and practice.

Education shouldn’t end when you graduate. Rather than aim for a certain level when you can sit back and relax, strive for continuous growth. In other words, don’t be a know-it-all. Be a learn-it-all.

3. He got help.

Spieth’s goal at this point was to simply get his ball “somewhere near the green.” But where was the green? A dune stood in the way of his line of sight, and you can imagine how disoriented he might be at this point.

So, Spieth asked for help.

He asked his caddie, Michael Greller, to trek up the hill and help him guess how far he was from the green. (Greller estimated it was about 240 yards.) Also, by standing in line with the hole, Greller gave Spieth an idea of how to line up his shot.

Greller had to move before Spieth swung, though, or Spieth would have received a two-stroke penalty. Realizing this, Spieth politely directed his caddie to get out of the way.

Takeaway: No man (or woman) is an island.

You don’t have to rely completely on yourself to get things done; in fact, you shouldn’t. Teams can accomplish much more than single individuals; so, be willing to ask others for help when needed.

4. He took calculated risks.

Spieth knew this could move could save him. Or, it could lead to further disaster.

But he had taken his time to think things through. He had considered his options and found what he considered the best available.

Now was the time to focus and follow through.

The result?

Spieth executed a brilliant shot that landed just off the green. He finished the hole with a bogey putt–keeping him in prime position–and then followed up with some amazing play on the final holes, eventually leading to a dramatic victory.

Takeaway: Great work isn’t about taking blind shots or simply hoping for the best. Risks must be calculated.

But great ideas will remain just that–ideas–without someone who is willing to take a chance on them.

5. He ignored the haters.

Some fans and analysts criticized Spieth for what they felt was “unfairly” taking advantage of the rules, since it took time and could potentially break the concentration of his opponent.

But most saw it differently: a young man who suffered a great mental error, but then demonstrated poise, quick thinking, and flawless execution to recover.

Takeaway: Negative feedback can be extremely valuable, so use it to grow and get better.

But at a certain point, you have to go with your gut and do what you know is right, regardless of what others have to say about it.

Because that’s what it takes to do great work.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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