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How much do you have to lose?

September 26, 2019


When we start a new activity, we often do so for a simple reason: it seems enjoyable. If we fail at it or struggle, we shrug it off, knowing that more work can smooth out the wrinkles. It's simple and straightforward: If we enjoy the activity, we persist. If we want to walk away, it's not a big deal.

But as we put more time and effort into it, and as we see more success, things start to get complicated. Where there were no expectations, now there are plenty. Failure, once greeted with a shrug, has been replaced with a gnawing sensation that we just can't let go of. What ifs start popping into our mind, as we wonder what will happen if we lose the race, fail to meet our sales targets, or mess up the big presentation.

Over time, we transition from a drive for success towards a fear of failure. We no longer pursue the activity for enjoyment or even for the feeling we get when we accomplish our goal, but instead to avoid the feeling that comes with letting ourselves and others down. We start playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.

When you have more to lose, you're more likely to play not to lose, to avoid failure, to minimize risk-taking. Or, in football lingo: you're more likely to play with the much-maligned "prevent defense," where you hope to win by default, instead of by taking control. More to lose doesn't just mean having money at stake, but often  something much more insidious: status.

When how we view ourselves is wrapped up with what we do, then a failure at an activity can't just be shrugged off, because it's not that we failed at a game, it's that we are a failure. The higher the potential fall in our status, the more likely we are to start playing not to lose.

The solution isn't to not care. As my high school coach used to tell us after a poor race, "it hurts because you care." But as you transition from dabbling in an activity to pursuing it with passion, just remember to keep a bit of perspective. It's not you as a whole person who failed. It's not the end of the world. You're mom, dad, coach, kids, best-friends, won't disown you. We're all human. We all mess up and fail. And if you want to reach your full potential, you're going to have to free yourself from the trappings of status so that you can take a risk to win at whatever it is you're doing.

-- Steve


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