Monday, May 07, 2020

Playing the game of life

Sports players are not the game. You are not your work.

It’s common for writers to compare working life to sport in one way or another. The idea of winners and losers, of team effort as a key to success, of inspirational coaches and great leadership on and off the field of play, all provide good analogies for handling our working lives. But sport and working life are not quite as similar as some people claim. Knowing the key differences can save you from many bad situations.
Working life certainly feels like one of the more competitive kinds of game. There are usually some more-or-less established rules of play, rewards for success, opponents to be avoided or overcome, and friends to be helped. Survival in such a competitive, often ruthless environment, depends on how well you play. . . doesn’t it?

Good team mates in sport and at work can be a great source of support. The “other side” will try to bring you down if they can. You definitely need skill and practice to be good. Coaches can help you do better. Team managers can—and will—impose penalties for slacking or failure. There are winners, losers, persecutors, and victims in the game of working life. Generally speaking, you can’t opt out of the game of work either, since you need money to be able to live, and working is where most people get it.

So far, so good. But knowing the critical ways in which working life differs from any kind of sport or game is essential to be able to succeed—or just to survive, with your sanity and self-respect intact.

Here are some critical differences from the sporting world that jump out for me:
  • Work really isn’t a team sport. You may be part of a team, but most organizations handle rewards and assessments of performance individually. You can’t avoid direct, personal accountability for your actions or decisions. In a sports team, you expect all your team mates to be on your side. In teams at work, this isn’t always a safe assumption.

  • Sport is a short-term activity, limited by the set length of the playing period. After the game, you get to walk away. Staying in a job or a relationship you hate, or that doesn’t work for you, has long-term consequences. Don’t risk them for short-term success or comfort. Playing the wrong sport won’t ruin your life. Working somewhere that isn’t right for who you are—which means consistent with your deepest values—will. It is a seriously bad idea.

  • The sports field, court, or whatever else it is called, is a clearly bounded, well understood situation. Everyone knows what’s there, what counts and what doesn’t, and where you can play to best effect. The working environment is messy, uncertain, ill-defined, and constantly changing. Yet your survival depends still on how well you understand it and take appropriate action. Sometimes, it’s more like a battlefield than a baseball diamond or a tennis court. Don’t assume others will play by the rules—or that there even are any.

  • Winners in sport almost always win because of better preparation. It may not seem like that to the losers, because winners sometimes seem to carry off winning performances with ease, but winning is rarely an accident. The best players will lose sometimes. The worst lose all the time. In the business world, it’s tempting to assume that the same is true. It isn’t. Chance plays a far greater role. Don’t get puffed up and assume one or two successes mean that you’re brilliant. Luck is sometimes on your side. Too many people ignore the part it plays. Stay humble and you’ll avoid falling from that pedestal you put yourself on.

  • Winners in sport and work learn from past mistakes. They never stop learning and practicing. Do you imagine that Tiger Woods believes he can walk onto a golf course and win without hours and hours of focused practice beforehand? But at least he knows what the game is. To win in the workplace means understanding the politics well enough to know what is really wanted from you. Bosses often don’t—or won’t—tell you.
There are other differences too, but these will do for a start. Sporting analogies can be useful in illustrating ideas about work, but don’t make the mistake of following them too far. Sport and work can both be dirty businesses, but you can always walk away from a sport if it gets too much for you. Walking away from the world of work isn’t so easy. Even people who decide to get out of the corporate rat race usually find that the world of freelancing or self-employment isn’t that much easier.

So what can you do?
  • Stay wake and alert. Don’t be lead astray by simplistic recipes for success.

  • Learn, practice, re-learn, re-practice . . . then do some more of both. Never stop learning and practicing. Nothing will ruin you faster.

  • Don’t be naive, but don’t lose heart either. Sure there are some bad things out there, but there are many good ones too.

  • Most of all, stay calm and detached from the emotional turmoil around you. Neither sport nor working life are as serious as their devotees believe.
You are not your work. It doesn’t define you. Whatever happens, you are still a unique individual with an intrinsic worth far greater than you can imagine. The universe brought you into being and assigned you a place within it. Don’t let mere humans—even self-appointed umpires of our corporate world—persuade you differently.

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