Key Point: When we play not to lose instead of playing to win, too often the very thing we are desperately trying to protect happens… We lose. We succeed more often if we play to win. While watching the Canadian Women’s hockey team beat the Americans for the 2014 Winter Olympics gold medal, after the latter had a two-goal lead late into the game… You could see this phenomena take place in HD… It was literally evident in the eyes of the players. If you watch most gold medal winning performances, the winners are on the edge. They have adopted the “play to win” mindset. Champions make a conscious decision to focus everything on the action required for winning and not the actions to prevent losing. Too often the medal “favorites” disappoint and in retrospect, realize they unconsciously or consciously focused on preventing mistakes rather than creating the winning moves.
In Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s new best selling book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, they do a great job combining science and story telling. While there are numerous lessons to be learned from the book, if there’s one thing I want to draw your attention to, it’s this: Competing well means taking risks that are normally constrained by fear.
A post about Top Dog reinforces the message of focusing on playing to win: “We definitely don’t want to use any of the science to pigeonhole people,” Merryman says, but what the authors learned shouldn’t be ignored. “There isn’t an ideal type of competitor… Po and I write about how people can be playing to win or playing not to lose.” The difference, she explains, is that playing to win means focusing on success, whereas playing not to lose focuses on preventing mistakes. “I think it’s easy to switch into that playing-not-to-lose mentality… But if you want to grow, if you want to challenge yourself, if you want to innovate, you have to force yourself to be playing to win.”
Watching the Olympic athletes and reading the great stories in Top Dog are very instructive for our work life and us. Our personal spark will likely never ignite, or be expressed, when our orientation is just to get through the day. Competitive fire will only flourish when long-term goals are high, and when it’s accepted that risks and mistakes go hand-in-hand. We might not like to be judged, but having our reputation on the line can unleash intense effort and creativity. Self-accountability includes playing to win. Respect involves putting fear and related stress under our control, and accepting the mistakes associated without destructive self-blame when we fall. Abundance focuses on the rewards and spoils of winning rather than the false safety of not losing.
- Take a moment to examine whether you are playing to win or not to lose in your career. Are you looking for ways to stretch yourself and “ski jump,” or are you focusing on lying low and “playing it safe?” What will this strategy bring you? What does “safe” really mean?
- Know what playing to win looks like in your environment. It does not mean being irresponsibly foolhardy. However, it does involve risk taking. And like former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said (and the Top Dog authors note): “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
- Take Bronson and Merryman’s scientific based insight to heart: “Come out of the shadow and seek opportunities where you’re going to get the credit or the blame – more than likely, you’ll try harder, throw yourself into it, and surprise yourself.”
Play to win gold medals in The Triangle,