This is a critical question that defines the quality of our lives and careers. The differences between the two modes are so subtle that it can escape the attention of both outside observers and that of the person it’s happening to. But the impact can be tremendous.
Playing to win requires us to be bold, playful and willing risk-takers that are ready to learn as we go, despite the setbacks and criticism. It means we are humble enough to ask questions, seek and be willing to accept help and outside resources. We can do all this and more because we are committed and the goal is clear: to win. Playing to win is exciting, energizing, and it should be, because we find our best selves in those moments. We find we are capable of great creativity, courage and can tap reserves of strength we didn’t know existed within us because we had something priceless in those moments – the passion born from playing to win!
Early in life and career, going away to school, starting a new job or business, launching a project or product, etc. demanded that we took risks. In the process, we scored victories, were handed defeats, learned valuable lessons and our confidence grew until we get where we wanted to be…and then we go into maintenance mode, working hard to preserve the status quo, forgetting all that it took for us to arrive here in the first place. With that subtle shift, we begin to play “not to lose”.
Playing not to lose is a siren song that can look like safety, stability and the “smart thing to do”. In fact, this line of reasoning is easy to promote to others – and within us – until we lull ourselves into a comfortability that slows or stops the growth process. Playing not lose isn’t fun. It’s stressful, anxiety-ridden, saps our drive and kills creativity. We constantly worry about what we may lose, resist change and no longer seek advice or new information. It’s akin to the Dutch boy, playing defense and desperately trying to plug holes in the dyke instead of building a better one. Or building something new.
Two quick examples:
Playing not to lose: The Wright Brothers. Ever wonder why there isn’t a Wright Aviation, Wright Space Industry or Wright Airlines? The two ingenious, hard-working, risk-taking brothers from Ohio changed history forever with their invention of practical powered flight! But instead of continuing the creativity and collaborating with others to advance the new aviation industry, they descended into years of bitter litigation, fighting to desperately defend what they created, not build on it. Meanwhile, the world and aviation moved on without them.
Playing to win: John Elway. Regardless if you’re a football fan, the example of John Elway, the 37-year-old quarterback in the 1998 Super Bowl win for the Denver Broncos is hard to dismiss. To the shock and worry of his teammates, coaches – and fans – instead of throwing the ball, he decided to run it to get a critical first down and got crushed! He was hit so hard that his body “helicoptered” through the air but the play succeeded and was a turning point in the game. Watching it, you could feel the determination of someone playing to win who refused to be stopped.
In life and career, we must play to win! We don’t live long enough to do otherwise and we’ll never claim victory in what we’re working towards if we don’t. It’s up to you to make the choice – it always has been.