On the surface, it sounds like the dumbest statement in the world: “Always play to win.” I don’t know that I’ve ever known anyone who played a game or lived a life hoping to lose, outside of those Chinese badminton players who were caught tanking some early games in this summer’s Olympics as they very stupidly and selfishly tried to jockey the bracket.
But as I gobbled down Joe Posnanski’s glorious new book called “Paterno” over the weekend, I was drawn to another axiom that is taught of the fields of play but keenly displayed throughout all of life: “Don’t be afraid to lose.”
Posnanski wrote that in Paterno’s last days – just before he died of lung cancer and a broken heart -- he still regretted going for a first down during the 1967 season at Florida State rather than safely punting the ball away. The legendary Penn State coach said, “I’ll tell you what I was thinking. I was still a young coach, understand. And I had convinced myself that the only way to win was to be unafraid of losing. That’s what I would tell the guys (players.)”
Posnanski wrote that as Paterno recalled the moment of long ago, he had just been released from the hospital with his broken pelvis. He was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for cancer and was gaunt and haggard but suddenly Joe stood up at his kitchen table, pointed at the author and jabbed his finger.
“You can’t be afraid to lose!” he came alive. “You will not win all the time in life. Sometimes the other team is going to lick ya. But you have to believe you will win. You know who wins in this world? I don’t care if it’s football or politics or business. The bold people win. The audacious people. People who are afraid they’ll lose, they beat themselves. They lose before they ever get started. They have their excuses before the game is every played.”
Posnanski wrote that the frail Paterno sat back in his chair and then, in a calmer voice, told the writer. “I went for it on fourth down because I refused to be afraid to lose. But what I didn’t understand back then is that while you don’t want to be afraid of losing, you have to have a healthy respect for it.”
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I have a dear friend in Texas who shares things that he knows I need to read and relish. So here is a Parable on Winning that was included in a book called “Reclaiming Higher Ground: Creating Organizations that Inspire the Soul.” Written by Lance Secretan, this is every bit as on-course as what a failing Joe Paterno taught us about winning from his kitchen table.
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“A PARABLE – PLAYING TO WIN”
“A parable from the Middle East tells of a servant in Baghdad who came to his master one day with a great concern.
“’Master,’ he cried, ‘Someone bumped into me in the crowded market place this morning. When I turned around I saw it was Death. I caught his eye and he gave me such a strange look that I am now in fear of my life.’
“‘Master, please lend me your horse so that I may flee. With your help I can be far away in Samarra by nightfall.’
“The merchant was a generous man and leading the servant to one of his fine horses, he sent him away.
“Later, the merchant was strolling through the market place where he noticed Death standing in the crowd and said: ’Why did you frighten my servant this morning and give him such a threatening stare?’
"’I did not threaten him,’ said Death. ‘It was a look of surprise. I was astounded to see the man this morning in Baghdad when I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
“Playing not to lose is a negative energy draining style of living that becomes self-fulfilling. It has no upside. We cannot score goals, if we only defend our own goal mouth.
“When we are playing not to lose, the best that we can hope for is to minimize the number of fears that turn into reality.
“Playing to win, on the other hand, has unlimited upside and only a limited downside. The right kind of odds, as any gambler would agree.”