Are You Playing to Win or Just Playing to Last?

A couple of weeks ago on The Celebrity Apprentice, Annie Duke discussed the difference between playing to win and playing to last. While the analogy comes from the world of poker, the underlying philosophy can easily be applied to nearly every facet of your life, just as Annie applied to the Apprentice game.

Looking at your own career ambitions, do you find that you are simply avoiding the possibility of failure or are you taking the necessary risks to achieve true success? Are you satisfied with middle-of-the-road mediocrity or do you want something more?

Understanding the Analogy

In a poker tournament, you’ll find that some participants are playing to last. Their strategy is one of survival, hoping to stick around long enough to get into the money. They hope that through conservative play, they will be able to remain in the tournament while other players get eliminated. On the flip side, you’ll also find some participants that are playing to win. They recognize that they’ll need a lot of chips if they want to improve their chances at winning the whole thing, so they are willing to take a lot of risks.

Translating this contrast in strategies to the non-poker world, you’ll also find that some of the most successful people in the world are also some of the biggest risk takers. Donald Trump puts millions of dollars on the line each and every day. He understands that he deserves nothing and has to earn everything. On the other hand, the guy with the safe middle management job will probably stay right there: in the middle.

Monumental Successes, Devastating Failures

If you play to win, you will likely also face your fair share of monstrous losses. You will get bombarded by many difficult decisions. Some of these will go your way and you will enjoy a great deal of success. However, some of these won’t go your way and these situations can be a huge hit to your ego (and your wallet). The worst case scenario is a very real possibility.

Going back to the poker analogy, players with this aggressive strategy may find themselves winning some big tournaments, but they will also find themselves getting eliminated very early in many other tournaments. With great risk can come great reward, but it’s still a great risk.

The Safe Route Has Its Limits

If you play to last, you’re less likely to face monumental failures, but you’re also less likely to enjoy astronomical successes. In a poker tournament, you may be able to make a little bit of money, but you probably won’t come out as the eventual winner overall. It’s all about perspective, because you’re bringing a thimble to the well and not a giant pitcher.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, since some people value security and predictability over the opportunity for massive success. Just as with your stock portfolio, you have to assess your risk tolerance. Sometimes, the safe bet is the best one.

Are You Playing to Win?

When you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out more often than not (but you’ll also hit a few of those balls out of the park). When you take a more calculated swing simply to get on base, you have a better chance at incremental success (but you’ll never hit a homerun).

Are you willing to put it all on the line? Are you playing to win or are you playing not to lose?