Play to win

My cliff notes for “Have no excuses“:

Sometimes we make a show of trying hard so that when we fail, we have an “My best effort wasn’t good enough” excuse. Preparing an excuse softens a failure, increasing the chance of failure by tempting you to fall back on it. This license to fail can be so powerful that it is tantamount to pre-deciding to fail.

If you were excused then you were helpless, and you couldn’t have done better, and you can’t learn to do better next time.

We can resolve instead to not excuse our failures, which removes the incentive for this kind of behavior. This leaves us to focus on achievement, instead. Introspect to interrogate and understand your failures, but root those explanations in why “I wasn’t good enough”, and don’t confuse them with excuses that absolve the failure.

Play to win, not to ensure your actions were acceptable even if you failed.

I suggest cultivating your mental habits such that it feels bad to check whether or not your failure will have an excuse. Refuse to have excuses. Refuse to cover your failures. Only then, without expected social protection, do you really start trying to figure out how to win.

What about bad luck? Examine and own your choices in the face of bad luck; don’t blame luck. (Owning the choice sounds like “I’d make the same bet again”.) Otherwise, you’ll never learn to be better at weighing and making risk-and-reward-based choices.

What about truly unforeseen circumstances, such as falling ill? Account for these in your plans! You know there is always an outside chance that external forces will derail your plans, so make contingency plans to give yourself the best chance to succeed in spite of them. Do all that you can to control for not failing because of them. And if you fail because of them anyway, that’s no excuse; your plans to mitigate them were not good enough. (Owning this can sound like “I messed up” Also, only if this is true: “I’ll do better next time with what I learned”.) Otherwise, you can’t expect to beat these external circumstances.

I have found that it’s usually in the moment when I refuse to make excuses even if I do fail, that I start really trying to win in advance.

What about social pressures to excuse failure? Well, sometimes people really do want some explanation. [ALWAYS with failures, in client service-oriented work.] But be aware that excuses function socially to keep you from losing face, at great cost to your agency. And be aware of well-intentioned people trying provide excuses for you, to make you feel better. This is toxic; it denies you power. Seeing your failures without excuses, with an explanation of what you could have done differently within your power, to avoid failure, is good: It allows you to do better.

Refusing to give excuses can have social costs: If others are participating in an implicit conspiracy of mediocrity and you refuse, that calls them out (even if subtly). Facing your own shortcoming pressures others who may be reluctant to do the same. (You can view these as opportunities to practice and prove your resolve to reject excuses.)

(There is also an inverse corollary: There are others who highly value those who live up to their failures.)

This advice requires a certain kind of strength to not be self-harmful: It requires you to have internalized previous posts in this series, to live without guilt, to judge yourself as a flawed mortal not as perfect like a god, to buckle down when things get hard, to not see yourself as good or bad, and to be comfortable seeing the dark world.

Playing to win is a motivation tool to replace guilt motivation.

You don’t need to win every time — but you do need to learn every time.

Don’t confuse explanations as separate from excuses. Deconstructing and understanding a failure is important for learning, but focus not on whatever facts contributed to your failure, but what you could’ve done to mitigate those facts, that you did not do. And avoid fatalism and destructive conclusions such as “I’ve learned never to trust.” You’ll recognize excuses and harmful conclusions because they degrade your power instead of building it for the future.

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