This lesson took me 20 years to understand. What about you?
Sometimes you have to grow into a lesson. And often, the best lessons don’t come from who you’d expect.
20 years later, I understood.
Years ago, the partner of a consulting firm pulled me aside to ask for my help.
For almost a year, his team and my team had worked side by side on a project for a client, and we’d become friends.
“Hey, David. Can I ask your opinion about something?”
“Sure, Rami. What’s up?”
“My company has really grown with this client in the last couple of years. But lately, their business keeps growing, and our business with them is shrinking. Do you have any idea why?”
In that moment, I entered a time machine.
I flashed to an old memory, standing on the side of a basketball court my sophomore year of high school. Coach Velasco had just called time out in our game, and none of us knew why.
With 2 minutes left, we were up by 4 points and the “W” was just about ours. That’s when Coach Velasco called time out.
I thought to myself, “Coach!??? Why are you calling time out and stopping the clock!???”
His message was short and confusing.
“Boys, you’re ahead in this game because you’ve been playing to win. But you just started playing not to lose. You’re going to blow this game unless you change your mindset.”
That was all he had to say. He sent us back onto the court.
Playing to win versus playing not to lose?
“He called time out to tell us that!!!??? He’s crazy. Playing to win and playing not to lose is the same thing!”
20 years later, I understood.
When Rami asked me what I thought was happening, Coach Velasco’s coaching came flying out of my mouth. I had sensed Rami and his team had started showing up differently. I just couldn’t articulate what was different until that moment.
Rami and his team had done fantastic work and enjoyed growth. They’d been playing to win. Or in non-sports terms, you could say they were focused on delivering great work. But as this client became a larger percentage of their total business, Rami and the other partners started to get nervous. What would happen if this client went away?
To protect what they had, they made a seemingly subtle mindset shift and started playing not to lose this big piece of business. I’m not sure they were even conscious of it, but it showed up in their behavior.
The circumstances didn’t change, but their performance did.
Rami’s first reaction to my comments was almost identical to my reaction to Coach Velasco. So I told him the story about Coach’s “unnecessary” time out. In the moment he got it, his whole demeanor changed to reflect both insight — and horror.
Rami had a conversation with his team later that day. It took some time, but they eventually reversed their mindset and their business slide.
The same can be true for you.
Your outer performance is tied directly to your inner state of mind. While playing to win and playing not to lose may seem like the same thing, they are light years apart in terms of what they’ll generate for you in performance, satisfaction, anxiety, and results.
What’s the most important thing to you, right now?
How are you approaching it? To deliver your best work? Or to protect your position?
And has your approach brought out the best in you?
If the threat is real, protecting what you have is a viable and valuable option. Yet, some of us (including myself at times) have assumed the “playing not to lose” approach without even being aware of it.
With what matters most to you, which mindset will you consciously choose?
Either approach is legitimate, depending on your goals and your circumstances. The more it matters to you, the more important it is to choose it consciously.
You can play to win.
You can play not to lose.
Just remember, they’re not the same.