Playing the Game You Want to Win
You’re not going to win at Scrabble if you’re playing by the rules for Monopoly. You’re not going to win at poker if you’re playing by the rules for solitaire. You can’t play chess with the rules for checkers.
It’s always a risky bet for me to use a sports analogy, given that I mostly have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I’m pretty sure you won’t win a tennis match if you play it like basketball.
And you’re not going to win at getting what you really want if you’re only playing for what you think you can get. Those are not the same games.
If, as the saying goes, we’re always winning the game we’re playing, then I presume we’d want to make sure we’re playing the right one. By “right” I don’t mean the opposite of wrong; I mean the game you actually want to win.
I bet sometimes you might think you aren’t winning at all, right? Well, hang tight, because I think you probably are, whether you like it or not. By the way, that last part, about whether or not you like what you’re winning? That’s very important foreshadowing.
I have a perfect example. Let’s talk, for a moment, about my illustrious acting career. Get excited.
Some of you may know that I trained — how shall I put it delicately? — somewhat obsessively as a dancer during all of my teen years.
By high school, I was taking upwards of about fifteen to eighteen dance classes each week, usually averaging about three or four hours of class each day, plus rehearsals. I did my I.B. and honours-roll homework on the hour-plus-long-each-way bus ride to and from my ballet school. I made it all work and I made it all work well.
No, I didn’t date in high school, in case you’re wondering. It’s a fair question. If it didn’t involve tights and pointe shoes, I wasn’t doing it. The only school dance I ever attended was my grade 12 prom. I didn’t have time for a social life outside of the studio, but I didn’t mind; I had my dance friends and I was focused and content.
After graduation, I went on to study at the Canadian College of Performing Arts. My true love had always been dance, but I quickly realized that what I really loved was telling stories and becoming a part of them. I wanted to become an actor.
Given all this focus on my dreams and my tendency to go all-in on my goals, you might wonder how my acting career panned out. After all, I live very close to Vancouver, also known as Hollywood North, because so many shows and movies are filmed up here. I was well placed to make a real go of it. All I needed was an agent and there were plenty of those available.
With all that discipline, dedication and determination I applied to dance training, how many agents do you think I met with?
While you’re thinking about what you might have seen me in and contemplating the lengths to which I would have gone to follow my dream, let me tell you: I spoke to exactly zero agents. None. Nada. Not a single one.
And thus ended my noteworthy career as an actor: over before it began, because of my fear and doubt.
What got in the way? Well, let’s see. My paralyzing perfectionism, for starters, and enders, as the case would be. My fear of getting a no stopped me from finding out if there might have been a yes. I was so worried that I would discover that I wasn’t good/pretty/talented/special/lucky enough that I was unwilling to try and risk hearing a no. I was unwilling to risk trying anything at all, it turned out.
The job of my survival mechanism, or ego, is to keep me from certain death or humiliation, which she views as the same thing. I must say, she did her job exceptionally well (she is thoroughly effective): I didn’t receive any rejections.
By letting my fear stop me before I started, my survival mechanism made damn certain I wouldn’t fail at the thing I wanted. This did, however, mean that I also wouldn’t succeed at it, either.
There’s the kicker: not getting what you want because you’re too afraid to risk going for it feels a lot like the very rejection and disappointment we are trying to avoid, but now it comes with a side of shame and regret for succumbing to fear. Probably not really the trophy you want on your shelf.
The game I wanted to win was being an actor; the game I played was avoiding rejection and disappointment. I didn’t play to win; I played to not lose.
What I Want and What I Think I Can Get are not generally the same thing. They are not the same game and winning at one does not create the result of the other.
What I Want is rooted in my desire, vision and possibility. What I Think I Can Get is entrenched in my fear and doubt mixed with beliefs I don’t even like but can find plenty of evidence to support.
What I Think I Can Get is based on stories I’ve inherited or adopted along my way: the limiting beliefs of my not-enough-ness, of who I think I am or who I am afraid I am not. These stories are not empowering and they do not make me feel brave enough to take risks or go after my dreams.
A plan based on What I Think I Can Get is not going to look at all like a plan created to move me towards What I Want.
Worse yet, if I think I’m playing for What I Want, but I’m only taking the action for What I Think I Can Get, I’m going to fail. What I Think I Can Get actions tend to be small, safe, timid and inadequate, and sufficient only to generate just enough of the results I’ve already pared down.
If I’m hoping for What-I-Want results but only taking What-I-Think-I-Can-Get actions, I’ll have gotten clear directions, sure, but they’re to the wrong destination. And when I get there, I’ll be surprised (but not in a good way) and disappointed.
I’ll then add this disappointment to the mounting file of evidence that I don’t have what it takes and that I don’t get what I want, which, in turn, will make me even less likely to try anything risky again. My fear wins and my survival mechanism/ego high-fives herself for a job well done keeping me safe from the sabre-toothed tiger of my desire.
To add insult to injury, the more I unconsciously let my fears dictate the game I’m playing, the more likely I am to forget that there are two games on the table. When we forget that What We Want and What We Think We Can Get are two different games, we lose sight of possibility and are left with our old limiting beliefs of what is available to us instead.
We end up playing for what we think we can get anywhere we might have desire: careers, income, love and relationships, adventure and anything else you can think of. We play for less than, and unfortunately, that’s what we’ll get.
If you’d like to get more of what you want, instead of more of what you think you can get, then it might be worth taking a look at your life and seeing which game you’re playing.
If we’re always winning at the game we’re playing, we might want to make sure we’re winning at the game we actually want to win, so we’re not conceding defeat before we even begin.