Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

How You Win

How You Win
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My kids were sick last week (nothing big—just the flu). This left me at home, lounging in my pajamas, doing little of anything. It turned out to be a surprisingly refreshing change of pace. After months of pushing the gas pedal hard, a couple of days of doing nothing felt pretty good.

On day two of my unplanned break, I spent a little time on the phone with my good friend Hans. We talked about direction, focus, and how goals change. I won’t get into every detail of that talk, but there is one part I’d like to share today. It’s about winning (not Charlie Sheen style, that’s a whole other thing). I’m talking about the fantasies we subscribe to, and how they get in the way of us reaching the finish line.

Lucky Breaks

I like stories. I particularly enjoy the ones in which an underdog overcomes adversity. The number of books and films dedicated to this tale indicate that I’m not alone. We’re all familiar with the formula behind such tales.

Our hero is from the wrong side of the tracks, or, somehow unfairly disadvantaged. He (it’s almost always a “he”) does something brilliant in obscurity only to have it accidentally slip into the hands of someone with great influence. Much to the surprise of all who had previously shunned him, he is promptly lifted out of his dismal life. That is, until he is tested and almost loses it all. In the end, he smartens up, and comes back to win it all. (Including the girl… because there’s always a girl.)

The concern I have with these kinds of notions—in addition to it being terribly cliché—is that they leave us looking for miracles performed by someone else. This leaves many of us waiting for a lucky break. We can concentrate on our “art,” and some mystic benefactor/influencer will connect the dots for us. We trust in the notion that if we just keep doing our thing, everything will somehow work out.

Sadly, this is a fantasy.

The Podium

As a kid, I wanted to be a world-class nordic skier. This wasn’t a common dream, but I liked it. I’d watch the people standing on the podium at the Olympics, and think, “One day, that might be me.” You too may have had such thoughts at one point or another. Perhaps it was to be a great musician, artist, or actor.

There’s little holding any of us back from any of these things. (Heck, Danny DeVito had the guts to enter a world made up of people like James Dean and Cary Grant.) What stops us, is how much work there is to such things. It’s easy to sit on the couch, look at someone else’s success, and fantasize about how that might be us someday. It’s harder to get off that couch and go to the gym, band practice, or acting lessons.

This was my undoing as a skier. My dream of standing on the podium wasn’t strong enough for me to pick a salad over a cheeseburger; or, to go to bed early and get my rest. (It goes without saying that it wasn’t enough to drag myself out of bed at 5:00 to go for a run.)

I’ve now pointed out two things that get in the way: false expectations and the distance between desire and will. With that out of the way, let me move on to what we’re here for today: how to win.

You Choose

Choosing seems easy. It is not. Every day we’re told about new things we’re supposed to choose. From life-changing plans, to entertainment options, to new brands of lip balm, we’re bombarded by “choice.” Give the number of options, these things collide.

Your choice to spend more time with family goes to loggerheads with your choice to excel in your career. Your choice to be healthier and your choice to have more fun are left to fight it out as you contemplate whether you’ll have one more glass of wine.

There’s no easy way to reduce the number of choices in your life. You’ll just need pick a single trajectory and edit. You won’t like this, but you can only have one and it comes with a price. If you choose your career, your family will suffer. If you choose your family, your career will suffer. If you choose a sport, your career and family will likely suffer. This sucks, but it’s true. In years to come, you may re-gain a kind of balance. For now, though, you can only win at one thing at a time.

Then write your choice down as succinctly as possible. If you don’t document it, you will lose it. You need to nail down a destination, and clearly define steps to reach it.

No one is going to just come along and change your life for the better, handing you what you think you “deserve.” There is no magic. The fates do not care. If you want it, you go get it. Simple as that.

You Don’t Stop

At the beginning of every race (literal or figurative) there are many at the starting-line. Everyone’s in their best gear, talking the talk, and excited to take part. The cost of getting to this point is nominal. After the gun fires, however, it largely becomes a battle of attrition. With time the pack will thin. Take no comfort in this; this is a marathon, and you too will be tested.

You will grow tired, but you will keep going. You will waver, but you will put yourself back on course. You will hit an obstacle that feels like the end of the road. You will suck it up, and find a way around it. You will pick yourself up over and over again. Along the way, you will start to realize that this is where the race is won. There are very few movies about this. No one wants to think that winning will take them years of toil.

The notion of fast, lasting success is largely an oxymoron. Those who claim to have achieved great success quickly and easily are either lying or lucky. Those who fall into the former category are often proven so—just give it a little time. Those in the latter grouping rarely maintain their standing. What’s easily won is equally easily lost.

Personally? I don’t believe in luck. It’s far too elusive.

You Do What Others Won’t

What will you do, in order to win? My fantasy of being a great skier was completely out of line with what I was actually willing to do. Those I know who’ve truly pursued this dream sacrificed so much that one might characterize their decision to do so as madness.

They largely missed-out on their childhoods, because they were always on the road going to races. They skipped high-school parties, fast food, and fun, because they were on strict training programs. They didn’t travel to Europe during college, because they were always at training camps, or, trying to squirrel away cash for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, they got up every cold rainy day, laced up their shoes and put in mile after mile.

The fact of the matter, is that you shouldn’t do this. It doesn’t take long for any sane individual to realize that the pay-off rarely matches the cost. The podium just isn’t worth the experiences sacrificed. Your career isn’t worth the time lost watching your kids grow-up. The moment of glory isn’t worth the endless pounding you put on your body. Few will admit this to be the case. If you’re driven to do something, though, none of it will matter. You’ll give up many other things in order to win.

This means working through the night, a decade without holidays, making do with less just to stay in the game, and perhaps seeming like a lunatic at times. Your friends will tell you to relax, take a break, or, “put things in perspective.” These are all completely sensible suggestions. In order to prevail, you will have to cast aside such comforts. Someday you may have the opportunity to stop. Until you have reached that plateau, you will have to look at every obstacle as one that increases the distance between you and a competitor who felt it too high a price.

Winning is Slow

Last weekend I was straddled with the task of archiving correspondence from the past decade. It was tedious, but proved to be somewhat enlightening. As I sorted the many messages, I came upon a number of names I hadn’t seen in a good while. Some were from forgotten friends, many were from people starting new businesses, and a few were from people I had been assured were going to be the “next big thing.”

It was surprising to see how many had quit, failed, or moved on. I’m not meaning to gloat, or, make light of others’ missteps. I would, however, be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the strange comfort that came over me as a result. For all the hard days, long nights, hair-pulling (none-to-mention the occasional global economic meltdown), we have persisted.

Our methods of working continue to improve and clients are continually happier with the results we provide. We have increasingly greater confidence in our capabilities, and as a result, better projects come to us. Obstacles that once seemed immovable, have become manageable or non-issues. In short, it has simply become easier to be good at what we do.

Winning is not random, fast, or glorious. It is slow, cumulative, and almost sneaks up on you. In some respects it just comes down to showing up and sticking around.

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