Not to Lose

I’ve been around soccer the majority of my life.

Whether it was traveling with the college team my dad coached as a kid, playing club soccer at an early age, focusing on the sport in high school, playing all through college, or being the product of my first entrepreneurial venture, soccer was a part of my identity for over 20 years. This team sport helped me push to be my best, but the sense of belonging is what made it special.

As I’ve enjoyed the World Cup in Qatar, I’m reminded how easy it can be to get ahead in a match, before slipping into a dangerous trap. Instead of staying sharp by maintaining the offensive pressure that earned an early lead, it’s tempting to start playing not to lose.

In soccer, this often means a team sinks back into an overly defensive formation. Less variety invites frantic desperation and the added pressure often leads to an equalizing goal being scored by the opposing squad. Even if the need for another goal shifts your team back into a more balanced attack, the momentum has shifted.

When applied to business, getting ahead and then playing not to lose can be seen all over the map. For instance, snagging a few early adopters, then assuming customer discovery is over. Hiring new talent, then hoping everyone can work together without initiative. Launching a new product with existing customers, then not supporting them through the chasm of change. Securing product-market fit, then avoiding innovation due to a misguided sense of risk. Finding generous mentors, then forgetting to nurture relationships. Those are just a few, but many leaders are lulled into this trap that’s defined by a sense of scarcity.

Tactics to stay ahead differ based on situational factors, but when in doubt, trust that uncertainty is certain. Be strategic to avoid recklessness, then stay on the offensive by leaning into the pain. As you find fresh ways to serve customers, continue celebrating milestones and stay ahead with initiative to keep building beyond the fear of losing.

Intrinsic

We all have bad days. When they string together, the stress gets heavy. This mental weight becomes especially unwieldy when the cause is unclear. After a couple down days, I went searching for the origin of my cloudy mood.

Along with insight on entrepreneurship, venture capital, and community building, Brad Feld talks a lot about mental fitness. The entrepreneurial lifestyle is a lonely roller coaster and I’m thankful for leaders like Brad (and many others), who have helped destigmatize the complex circuitry between leadership and mental health.

I found this entrepreneurship & mental health series from Techstars helpful, then wove in this 2015 interview to translate my temporary despair. Brad talked about how he’s gone through serious bouts with depression and through those challenging times, he’s been able to identify one of his intrinsic motivations to be perpetual learning. He went on to describe how even when he was busy and perceived to be successful, if boredom began to set in, an isolating absent of joy may soon follow.

This gave me clarity. I realized that one layer of my own intrinsic motivation is also learning. I like being in situations where I’m exposed to new things, thinking about fresh ideas, solving interesting problems, hearing stories from different people, and building into things I really care about. When there’s a lull in the action, it’s easy to think the ride is over. While this thought is misguided and untrue, it’s still disheartening. Mental fitness means something different for everyone, but here are a few exercises I plan to maintain within my practice.

  • Link learning with teaching.
  • Recognize that the storm will pass.
  • Find trusted peers to release tension.
  • Use this stimuli of stress to focus.

Adam Grant reminds us that strength does not come from ignoring pain. It stems from knowing that your past self has hurt and your future self will heal. Within the crucible of entrepreneurship, hardship is inevitable. Radical self inquiry keeps leaders aware of their mental fortitude. Such awareness then helps us maintain and uncover new stepping stones that illuminate our own path to thrive beyond momentary setbacks.

Extra Shot

Calm is one of my favorite apps. The guided meditations and sleep stories are a healthy aspect of my daily routine. Here are 10 ways to boost your mental fitness, a mental fitness training guide, and free mindfulness resources from these focused friends.