2016 / 10 May

The difference between losing and being beaten

Around a month ago a potentially life-changing opportunity landed on my desk. It was the chance to combine much of my recent work and expertise on a challenging, exciting and potentially hugely influential project. It was something that sparked a truly emotional response and my first instinct was to drop everything and go for it.

It seemed a bit surreal that the offer existed, but quite quickly the reality set in: tight deadlines, a huge volume of work and a challenging stakeholder schedule. It was not known how many other agencies or consultancies were in for the pitch, but we figured we would go all at it and see what happens.

After poring over the documentation, we responded with what I thought was a logical, pragmatic and most importantly, insightful response to the project. It was a fine piece of work and obviously resonated as we were invited to interview.

The lead up to that interview was one of the most stressful periods of my life. Not only did I have a personal interest in the project, but I had a desire to prove myself to the people around me. I take great pride in my work and for better or worse, my emotional investment is evident.

At one point, I wasn’t sure what was stressing me more: the pitch itself or the reality of potentially winning it and having to deliver. It would mean putting every other aspect of my life (business or otherwise) on hold and going underground.

At the end of the final interview, I was asked how I thought it went. After considering for some time, I remarked that if we didn’t get the gig, it was because we were beaten, not because we lost. It’s a response that confused some people but makes total sense to me.

As a kid, I played tennis a lot. I was reasonably competitive at a state level and totally overwhelmed at a national level. But my coach tried to instill the idea that what mattered was going out on the court and throwing everything at your opponent. If you were playing a nationally-ranked player, then run every ball down and aim to win a handful of games. The result didn’t matter as much as just going out there and playing the best possible game you could.

Admittedly, I was a terrible sport and had a shocking attitude, but what I’ve recently realised is that exact mindset is how I think about business. In a past life, I applied to do an MBA at Oxford and one of the questions asked was to compare sports to business. At the time, I wrote at length about a sportsperson or team being the sum of the parts and no matter who was in the limelight, their ability to perform hinged on the collective abilities of all the support.

While I still believe that to be true, since then, I have realised that the parallels between sport and business are even greater. The best sportspeople are lucky to have ability, but they rise to the top through determination and emotion. Every time they go on the court, or onto the pitch or whatever other domain, they put everything on the line. It is always possible to see when someone feels like they have been beaten versus when they have lost. While both are disappointing, being beaten is often outside of ones own control.

In a roundabout way, I think this view of the world is important to maintain in my approach to work. I think it’s crucial to continually invest myself emotionally and maintain my determination. I would be stupid to think that it’s possible to win every time I go for something, but I think I am smart enough to learn that so long as I go all in, sometimes I will be beaten. And that’s an acceptable reality.

To finish the story, in this instance we were lucky enough to win the pitch. The project is ours and I am about to embark on something that is all parts scary, exciting, fulfilling, justifying and hopefully beneficial to both parties. And I believe it will be because of that emotional investment.

While I may be relatively new to the business world, I genuinely hope that the popular notion that business and emotion are best kept separate is not true. I know that we are fortunate enough to have won this round, and that the next we may not be so lucky. I know that when that is the case, it will hurt. But what I have learned is that so long as I am going all in, at the very least I create chances. And the more chances I create, the more opportunities we have to succeed.

A good sportsperson seizes the few chances they create. And while the script of this particular analogy is not yet fully articulated, I hope that by following the same approach, I will continue to create and seize more opportunities. Perhaps it’s that some of the petulant child on the tennis court still remains in me, but I believe that by truly investing in everything that I do in the business world, there will be fewer instances of being beaten and no instances of losing.

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