Playing to win

Playing to win has a clear goal in mind.

A few months ago, we got a pinball machine at work. It’s a really premium, fun Jurassic Park pinball machine, with every bell and whistle one can think of, including a dinosaur that eats the pinball. While I have very occasionally enjoyed playing pinball, having easy and free access to it unlocked a little bit of an obsession in me. But, I had a big problem: I was pretty terrible at it.

Because I’m competitive by nature, and I strongly wanted to hold the top score in the office, I went to the internet for some tips on how to improve my pinball game. I read articles and watched videos, learning about how to stack up points and how to use the paddles more effectively. The best piece of advice I got from my deep dive, however, was this: don’t play to not lose the ball, because you’ll always lose the ball. Play with an idea of where you want the ball to go, and then learn your game in order to form a strategy.

When you’re playing to not lose the ball, you’re focused on the bottom of the pinball game, wildly flapping flippers in order to fight gravity. But, when you’re playing to win, you’re looking up, anticipating where the ball will hit the flipper so you can aim it where you want to go as you rack up the points. It wasn’t long after that lesson that I was able to break the office record (which, of course, has since been broken again). 

That idea of playing to win, not playing not to lose, resounds throughout my life. I find it coming up constantly, in a million different ways. This weekend, as my husband and I talked about finances, we discussed that we’ve always been postured towards our finances with a survival mindset, playing to not lose. We’ve only just begun to open ourselves up to the idea that we could create wealth if we are intentional about how we approach our finances both from reducing our expenses as well as finding ways to invest and create streams of revenue.

I see this theme throughout parenting too. There are seasons of parenting when you’re simply surviving, nothing else. You’re desperately trying to get your head above water, get some sleep, figure out how to manage the behavior of your kids and reclaim your relationship with your spouse, if you have one, while managing all of the responsibilities that come inherent in adulthood. But, when we get our heads above water, it can be all to easy to stay in that survival rhythm, playing to not lose.

Shifting your focus instead, as a friend recently articulated to me, to creating the childhood you want your children to have is what it looks like to play to win as a parent. What experiences, what knowledge, what identity, what activities, what relationships do you want for your children and how can you build a childhood for them that creates those things? One way to figure it out is to determine what type of adult you want to put out into the world, then reverse engineer what type of childhood that person might have. Suddenly, all of those tactical decisions that all parents have to grapple with become much more clear, when you have a clear goal in mind.

Big picture, who do you want to be in your lifetime? What kind of friend, what kind of spouse, what kind of neighbor, employee, member, student, teacher, child, sibling, citizen, leader, parent… what kind of person do you want to be? What would it look like to be that kind of person? Then, how do you become that person? How can you live your life in a way that aims for that objective in all avenues? Rather than just getting by, day by day, avoiding pain where you can, but aiming for something greater. Just like in pinball, eventually and inevitably the game will end, but what really matters is what you do while you’re playing.


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