Here is a beautiful example of someone rose from humble circumstances to become known for Block concepts that have become more recognizable than their names.
Kevin Carroll was abandoned by his parents at six years old as a result of poverty and addiction. Today in his fifties, having lived a remarkable life, a singular concept has come to define Kevin’s astonishing career: a red rubber ball, the kind of red rubber ball we all played with on elementary school playgrounds.
A few things about Kevin: He speaks five languages, including Czech, Croatian, Serbian, and German. He went from being a high school athletic trainer to a college athletic trainer to the head trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers in just five years. His words have appeared on over seventeen million Starbucks coffee cups. He has spoken before the United Nations on the importance of play in developing countries, and what we, in more developed countries, can learn from it. Eventually, after participating in the Olympics as a physical trainer for the Yugoslavian Olympic team, Kevin was recruited by Nike, where he was asked to invent his own job title to be a connector and amplifier of the Nike brand. He worked as the “Katalyst” (the K is for Kevin) at Nike for over ten years, where he finally left to become one of the most successful international public speakers and a respected agent for social change.
According to Kevin, play is as universal a language as music and is fundamental to human connection, adaptability, productivity and creativity. Kevin travels over two hundred days a year evangelizing play as a catalyst for social change, speaking to schools, corporations, and nonprofits all around the world. When Kevin is in a developing country, he will trade a brand new soccer ball to the local children he meets on the street in exchange for one of theirs. (Kevin has had his own line of soccer balls with Molten—one of the world’s largest ball manufacturers—imprinted with his own special symbols conveying play, energy, and curiosity).
In his travels across every continent, he has found people of all ages playing with soccer balls so threadbare that the leather has been worn away to the thread. He has collected soccer balls made from banana peels, yarn, coconuts, and even compacted garbage. Kevin’s artifactual sports balls are on permanent display at the Aspen Institute. Kevin says his collection of soccer balls from around the world represents the universal human desire to play, regardless of whether we live in prosperity or want. People will always find a way to engage in play.
Kevin knows a lot about the science of play and believes in his heart there is no other thing on earth quite like the ball. In a casual conversation, he will go into great detail about Friedrich Fröbel, the German innovator and teacher who created the concept of Kindergarten. Fröbel laid out a series of sequenced gifts that children should receive to support their early development. (All these gifts, as Kevin explained to me one day, are versions of toy blocks.)
The first gift is a soft ball. According to research, the word “ball” is often among a baby’s first. We are chasing balls from the moment we can crawl and some of us continue chasing them until we die. That primal power of the ball signals how important play really is to humans.
Kevin loves all sports and debated what balls he should focus on to communicate his message of play in his first book. He settled on the red rubber balls that are ubiquitous on every primary and elementary school playground across the world. The book Kevin wrote at Nike was a tribute to the power of the ball and play, and told his story of overcoming abandonment and poverty to reach what should have been impossible heights. Called Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, the book used the red rubber ball that we all chased around in elementary school as a metaphor for chasing our purpose in life and speeding up and amplifying human potential.
The book’s original design was elaborate, inside and out, constructed with thick cardboard and textured red rubber in the shape of a ball on the top. He hired a renowned design firm, Willoughby Design, to communicate the playful sensory spirit of his message. He found a rogue printer in Vancouver, BC, Met Fine Printers, who were willing to go all in on his unusual rubber and cardboard book.
Kevin was already one of the most sought-after public speakers globally by the time he left his brand amplifier position at Nike. There seems to be an insatiable demand for him and his message at every kind of company or institution. Having been in such high demand as a speaker while at Nike, Kevin began to realize his sole mission and purpose in life: he needed to leave Nike to evangelize the power of play around the world. Kevin believes deeply that when we chase our purpose in life it changes us, and makes us better, more effective people. When we play as children we do it unselfconsciously. Kevin believes that by using play as a tool for social change we can get back to chasing what fulfills us as adults. So it follows that if we all chase our purpose—our red rubber balls from childhood—as individuals, our society will improve collectively.
Kevin decided to pursue a major publishing deal to amplify his message. Yet despite having successfully sold his self-published Rules of the Red Rubber Ball at his talks, he couldn’t get any mainstream agent or publisher to take it. Again and again, he heard, “It is too expensive to produce with its thick cardboard and red rubber,” or “The message is laid out in a way we’ve never seen before.” Most had never seen a book that looked like a children’s book with grownup content.
So Kevin just continued his travels, selling his self-produced books at his speaking events. He was completely perplexed that no big publisher would buy it when he saw it resonating with such an incredible cross-section of people at his events. Eventually, he was approached by sports goliath ESPN’s new book-publishing arm; they took on the project, and the book continues to briskly sell more than a decade later. It is the kind of book you feel compelled to pass on after you read and experience it, as has happened with tens of thousands of people.
Kevin is recognized wherever he goes as the “red rubber ball guy”—a Block that has completely overshadowed his career at Nike, his honorable military career, his Olympic experience, and his being only the third black head athletic trainer ever hired in the NBA. The pure simplicity of the red rubber ball has become the universal symbol of Kevin Carroll, his signal, and his legacy to the world.
No matter our work, if we can be represented by some overarching, immediately perceivable concept or symbol—our Block—it will propel us farther and faster than we would ever get if we lead with a complicated or unclear message. It will serve as your signal, getting you seen and remembered, providing just enough to get people to look deeper. As we see with successful Icons, when we repeat our Block, we can get it to carry with it the full complexity of who we are.
His passion is to teach the science and “art of obviousness,” helping professionals, change agents, artists, and businesses confidently make their messages, brands and ideas stand out to their desired audiences. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Jamie’s work is an explanation of the “economics of attention,” based on the primal laws of human perception called Blocks. He has spoken, educated, and inspired others with his work prolifically, including TED at the creative giant, Wieden and Kennedy. Jamie’s Iconist work has spanned some of the world’s leading companies, artists, and the globe.