April 14, 2019

Winners and losers?

This past weekend was the 2019 Ocean State Grand National Karate Championship. A few students from my taekwondo school participated, including me and my 9yo son Cooper.

I fought in this same tournament last year, so I knew what to expect this time around in the side room where the adults complete. Cooper’s match was in the bigger main room where all the kids complete. This was his first time fighting so we didn’t know what to expect there.

Well lemme tell ya... The adults room is nothing compared to the kids room.

The adults room has two rings for the participants, orderly rows of chairs for the spectators, and the mood is downright collegial.

The kids room has 7-8 stages all running simultaneously, one of them raised up off the floor like a main stage boxing event, and the spectators area is utter pandemonium.

The referees had to shout at the top of their lungs to be heard over the hoots and hollers and boos and cheers of the coaches, parents, and friends. It was barely contained chaos. There were even crowd control police there, and at least twice I thought they might have to intervene.

You know that cliche about overly competitive Little League parents who argue about every call that doesn’t go their child’s way? Well, imagine the same situation except everyone involved is within ten feet of each other, the kid is literally getting physically beaten, and the parent is well trained in (and enjoys) hand-to-hand combat.

Let’s just say... emotions were running high.

Some of these parents were acting like it was life or death whether or not their 7yo kid won their stupid match. This observation got me thinking, “If I think the matches aren’t important, why am I here competing?”

The answer that I came up with was this:

I like to test my limits, and the way you do that in martial arts is through competition against other people.

The trouble with this is that if I win, someone else has to lose. I hate this. I even found myself thinking at one point, “Maybe I should let this guy win? I am objectively better, but... winning matters WAY more to him than it does to me.”

I didn’t throw the fight because that’s not something I’m comfortable with. But this guy is probably going to beat himself up for a year over the loss. And yeah, maybe that’ll drive him to get better, but... is publicly defeating someone the only way to create that drive?

Here’s the thing...

There are finite games (like a karate match) that have winners and losers. And there are infinite games (like playing catch) where the goal is to be able to keep playing. (article)

I see business as an infinite game.

When one of my colleagues lands a big client that I would have liked to work with, I don’t feel like I lost anything. They didn’t “beat” me. They aren’t taking money out of my pocket. There are plenty of clients to go around.

It’s not like there is a single, “eternal pie” that everyone is fighting over. You can do things to make the pie bigger. That’s what creating value is. (It’s tougher, but you can also make a whole new pie by creating a completely new category.)

If you choose to play a game that has winners and losers, you are probably going to spend at least half your life feeling like a loser. If you choose to play an infinite game, you can spend your life enjoying the game.