The presentation of these two approaches will likely appear in any endeavor worth pursuing. But their presence can go almost undetected because they feel so natural in the doing. We are generally disposed to approach life from the one departure point or the other, but exposing both can help us all make more informed decisions about the way we approach life.

Playing to Win

Watch any team or individual that is completely engaged in winning the game or task at hand and the elements of ‘playing to win’ become visible. There are the obvious skill and timing requirements. Then there is the mastery of the game itself, usually built up in experience and practice.

Then there is a less visible but just as important element that is common to all sincere ‘playing to win’ approaches. It is the loose, crazy confidence that a win is actually probable. Call it faith, call it confidence, call it whatever you want, but this element is always present in a ‘playing to win’ approach.

It opens up the possibility that a positive outcome will be achieved, and the playing seems to lean itself more strongly toward that outcome, the more relaxed and confident or full of faith, the players become. This mysterious element, makes rational practiced players take crazy risks which, astonishingly, pay off. It’s wild, it’s unpredictable and it’s a genuine rush. It feels like nothing is impossible, because almost anything you try, seems to succeed.

Playing not to Lose

The sad part about this approach to any activity whether sport or business, is that all too often the departure point is actually success! In this scenario, the deal or the game has been in progress for some time. Plays have been made and time burned off the clock. A winning score is on the board and as the game draws to a close, a sense of desperation begins to creep in. Desperation about not loosing. Desperation about not forfeiting the ground that has been taken. A desire to consolidate the winnings thus far and really dig in. A protectionist perspective begins to take hold of the individual or worse yet, a team.

From this departure point, the game is played out of desperation. A desperation not to lose. There is no room for loose risky calls. There is no room for chances. It is not time for faith. Rather it is time to take what is won and make for the hills…. Grab it with both hands, Hold on tight and don’t let go. Whatever you do, don’t let go!

Personal experience

In my experience, playing to win has always come with a sense of expectation that a positive or winning outcome is mine to have. Its mine to give away, should I choose. Through practice I have seen that the positive result I expect is attainable. As a world ranked swimmer I spent many hours in the pool working out and that built an expectation about performance that fueled my wins.

On the other hand, in business, I also know what it feels like to ‘play’ not to lose. It is a position of fear and a defensive posture that feels exposed and threatened. There is a sense of uncertainty about tomorrow and rather than take any risk, it seems more reasonable to consolidate what has been accomplished thus far. Occasionally this approach may be necessary, but it certainly does not yield like playing to win does.

Playing to win and playing not to lose do seem to point to the same result, however the pathways on these two approaches are radically different.
They engage different traits and skills. The one plays loose to make room for the miraculous, the other plays it safe. The one is willing to take risks, the other sticks to the routines that worked before. The one will put it all on the line for the hope of ‘What if’, the other fights to get out with a clenched, defensive fist.

Two questions then:

  • Are you playing to win or are you playing not to lose?
  • If the result of your approach is not what you want, what needs to change?