Why Playing the Game is More Important Than Winning
One of my favorite ongoing series I enjoy watching on YouTube is called DORKTOWN, run by Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein of Secret Base, part of the massive fan-based sports community known as SBNation. Their November 2022 video about the worst season in NBA basketball history, the 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats, was one of their best features yet. It had a lot of great moments, but one that really stuck with me was the story of Jamario Moon.
Moon was a 27-year old rookie for the Toronto Raptors, as someone who did everything possible to play basketball at the highest level. While he was a good D-League and Summer League player, he just never could seem to get a chance in the NBA until the Raptors saw something in him. He had an excellent 2007-08 season as a rebounder and defensive player, and also had a few strong moments in the playoffs. He hung around the league for a few more years, but his playing time diminished and by 2011 was back in the D-League.
He did get one more chance, but unfortunately, it was would be the worst NBA team in history in the hapless Charlotte Bobcats. He played his last NBA game during a loss on April 26th, 2012. That didn’t stop him from still playing, though, playing as recently as 2017 in Uruguay of all places. Eventually, at the age of 37, he finally hung up his shorts. He made a decent amount of money in his brief time in the NBA, hopefully more than enough to retire on. Fortunately for him, his nephew Xavier is a player in the Los Angeles Clippers organization, and he got his first taste of action in December 2021. He’s still on their D-League roster in 2022.
As cliché as it is, the Rolling Stones never fail to reminds us that “you can’t always get what you want.” This is especially true when it comes to your favorite sports team, but it’s just as much true for those who play the game. Whereas we as sports fans become obsessed with winning, most professional players recognize their blessings just to play the game they love at the highest level. Heck, even playing D-League or semipro basketball is an accomplishment in itself! As much as I love basketball, I have neither the physicality or athleticism to ever play the game at even a pickup level!
But, why does anyone play a pickup game of any sport or any game for that matter? Sure, there are plenty of reasons to find joy in winning at your favorite games. These reasons can range from the pure adrenaline rush of competition to the excitement of your achievements. Of course, what matters most is playing the game itself.
Yet, so often, especially in the hyper competitive world of the 2020’s, it feels like losing at anything is the end of the world. But, it’s really not, because you played the game; if you did your best, there’s more to be learned by you in losing than by the one who boasts over you when they win. Sooner or later, they will lose, too, and they will either be humbled by it, or quit out of rage.
Sure, playing in the big leagues of any sport or competitive activity has its perks. But, you can never underestimate the level of stress and pressure that comes from high level competition. For many athletes, losing can feel like the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. It doesn’t matter what level they happen to be at:high school, collegiate, semipro, or full-on professional. Here’s the secret that most winners often don’t tell you: there are actually upsides to losing.
In fact, one of the greatest joys in life is to lose yourself in the game you’re playing. This happens when you’re so in tune with what you’re doing that you don’t realize time has even passed. At high levels of competition, this is how athletes and world-class competitors are able to focus; when you’re in “the zone,” you don’t even notice the people around you; your only focus is on what’s happening in front of your eyes and your own internal thought process. While it can be frustrating to find yourself defeated by someone else, the true success in competition is to not beat yourself.
As long as you’re playing the game at the highest level you can on a consistent basis, even if you or your team lose, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost everything. You’re not any less successful because you lost, even if other people might think less of you. What they think of you doesn’t matter; it all comes down to what you gained from your experience and what you then do with what you’ve learned. Losing may even make your successes even bigger later, thanks to what you learned from your losses.
You can find joy in almost anything, even when you ultimately lose at a task or even ultimately reaching a goal. It’s what you do gain along the way. During a long sports season, even one in which you win more than you lose, there are both individual and team accomplishments along the way. Even in “solo” sports, you still have a team beside you as you compete. No one at high levels of competition in sport, hobby, or vocation is ever alone.
Yes, that’s right; I did mention vocation. After all, employment itself is as much a game as it is in business or content marketing or sports. As an SEO specialist for over a decade, I had my fair share of wins, and more than my fair share of losses. But, it’s this experience that allows me to reflect as much as I do on things and write the things that I do. It’s why I’m able to have articles trend on Google search for high volume keywords almost in my sleep. I only am able to do that because I had to suck first at both writing and optimizing for search engines. Sometimes, you have to embrace the suck, because that’s the only you get to be good.
You only get better by doing. This is why players who had middling careers in the pros become such great coaches; they know all about losing and what not to do, which is actually more important than knowing only winning and what to do. They say if you can’t do, you teach; but, in reality, you have to do in order to teach, even if you never were appreciated for what efforts you did give.
The true route to finding your own personal success is to find a sense of accomplishment in each step forward. Each article I publish is a step in the right direction. Every paragraph I write in my writers notebook is one more block of ideas I can work on. If you don’t produce, there’s nothing to work from. Even if your production is objectively bad or spit on by people, or worse outright ignored, it’s still something that you did. You have to learn from your mistakes, as that’s the only way to actually grow as a person.
Just like in video games, it’s incredibly satisfying to beat the level you’ve been stuck on for hours. Unfortunately, many people in their real lives find themselves stuck on the same level of their career. There’s a reason why gamification of careers has helped a lot of professionals in fields that couldn’t be further from sports. Of course, in sports, everything is gamified. If you find yourself stuck on something, come up with your own points system, where each task you accomplish offers a certain number of points.
While I haven’t resorted to a point system myself, I do make it a point to produce at least two documents a day and have something posting daily on my website. I could certainly make more of a game of it, which I have in the past, allowing myself certain rewards for accomplishing certain little goals. Anyhow, the idea is to always produce something every day, even if it’s not good.
More often each of us, myself included, need to look at losing as an opportunity not a finale. Loss should be an opportunity to challenge ourselves in new and unusual ways. Turning things inside out and upside down, taking unusual and fresh approaches to our tasks may turn into more failure, but more often than not, it’s the unexpected strategy that becomes the one that wins. But, you only discover these new ways of thinking by persevering through failure. If you just keep winning, why change what seems to be a winning formula?
Fact is, eventually, someone will find a way to break that winning formula, and then that becomes the new winning formula. It’s a never-ending cycle of invention, reinvention, and new winners, and new losers. The trick is to not be stuck in a cycle of mediocrity; you have to want to win because losing is always easy.
Yes, losing isn’t fun. It’s not easy to find positives from negatives. The biggest lesson to learn is that if you’re not having fun playing the game, either you need to find a new way to play the game, or you should find a new game altogether. If you’re winning and not having fun, that can be even worse, since you’re winning for the wrong reasons, things like money and attention that are much more fleeting than they first appear.
But, if you’re having fun, even when you lose, it means that you have a deep appreciation and passion for the game. After all, as long as you have a chance to play the game at any sort of competitive level, it means that you’ve cleared a bar that many other people never will. Sure, I never got rich doing SEO, but I helped a lot of people get a lot of new exposure for their businesses and projects that otherwise would never have gotten that level of attention. The sense of accomplishment, even if the direct fruits of that success are fleeting and impermanent, leaves an indelible mark on my self-worth.
I have accomplished quite a few things in my life, even if they go unheralded, because by the actions I did, sales were made, people got what they needed, and jobs were made necessary. Everything you do is part of a greater ecosystem we don’t always see in its entirety. Even if you play (or work) for what is ostensibly a losing team, you never know who is watching your individual effort. You never know just when your efforts, however futile they may appear right now, could one day lead to you finding a career teaching others the lessons you’ve learned.
While I’m not sure Jamario Moon ever enters the world of coaching, I can tell you that his efforts for over a decade in the NBA’s D-League certainly left an impression on his nephew. Now, Xavier Moon gets to have a chance at NBA success, no doubt in part to watching those long years his uncle Jamario put in playing the game he loves so much. I’m sure Jamario has shared tons of wisdom with Xavier over the years. While I’m now retired from the greater content marketing world, leaving that to the young college graduates with their TikToks, shiny diplomas, and massive educational debts, that doesn’t mean I must stop sharing what I’ve learned from what can be an extremely cutthroat world.
Sports are just a reflection of the greater society; if you think people overreact about their sports team losing a game, you can’t imagine what people like me have to take from people whose businesses are failing and you become the scapegoat because you didn’t get them “enough hits that month.” Basically, if I don’t make money, you can’t either. That’s fair, until they start making it personal. Sure, I began taking a lot of this abuse personally. People stopped hiring me because I don’t have a college degree, even though I have over a decade of clear successes. People started looking at the wrong things.
Companies today only want “winners” who are “popular” and “social.” I’m neither social nor popular, but I’ve most definitely produced many articles and websites that were winners in their time. Some of those works are still out there today; of course, because they were written for businesses under white-label contracts you’ll never find them. But, I know they exist; I know they got sales people for both my companies and their vendors promotions for the increased sales and contacts. I did my job. Even though I may look like I lost, my work prevailed, and I’m still here.
Even now, in my extremely fortunate ability to retire from the regular workforce, I still work extremely hard on my Pokemon articles and my other essays, too. I still do lots of keyword research and still keep up to date with the latest tips and tricks on optimizing for search engines. I don’t have to, but I enjoy the game of getting my work read by random people on Google. I make absolutely no money on these efforts, for now at least, but it’s just the satisfaction of creating these works that motivates me to get up and at ‘em every morning.
So, yes, even if you keep on losing, at least you get to play the game. Sooner or later, if you keep at it, you may just find yourself winning. I ultimately did, so you can, too.