You are sitting at a table. Your palms are moist and you can feel the stifling tension in the air. One hundred dollars is on the line and the once-chill poker game has become heated. You cannot lose. It’s either pollock and honey glazed carrots at the DC or burgers at State Street. You feel like you have a winning hand, but you notice your friend across from you is acting a little too confident; if one thing is true, he never bluffs. Do you fold and save what you can, or do you try to win? Are you playing to not lose or to win?
Although this is just one example, you have probably heard, read or experienced something similar to this situation. Whether it be the last time you competed in a game or worked for a promotion, you question whether you approached these situations correctly. I definitely have and, in search for more information, I found something interesting. When you google “playing to win or to not lose” or “playing to not lose or to win,” almost all of the top search results will say the same thing: people who play to not lose are stuck in fear. They make mistakes because they are focused on not losing: they fear failure. Those who play to win live undaunted. They do not fear because they are focused more on winning than not losing — these are the individuals who succeed.
Besides the common perspective, most articles take these two mentalities to an extreme. People who play to not lose “worry about what might go wrong if they don’t work hard enough or aren’t careful enough. They … hang on to what they have, to maintain the status quo.” People who play to win are “not reckless, but [they’re] certainly not passive.” These articles draw a sharp distinction between the two frames of mind.
However, I think there are a couple of things wrong with the way these articles approach the topic, as they oversimplify the mentalities and make the idea prescriptive rather than descriptive. First, they oversimplify by making the situation black and white when it is more of a scale — certain people live in the extremes of the mentalities and some are in between. You can take the winner’s mentality to an extreme by saying that winners are too focused on the end goal, resulting in reckless acts. Let’s play around with the story at the beginning. Let’s say your opponent only plays when he has the potential for a royal flush. The third card is played by the dealer and you see that he is not folding. Tempted by the possibility of winning the pot, you call to match his bet, and unfortunately, he did have a royal flush. Or let’s say you see that you have a royal flush. It is the best hand possible, but you notice that another player is confident. Scared that he may have something better, even though it is literally impossible, you fold. But unlike poker, real life does not always unravel to one of two extremes.
Far from the popular opinion, I believe most individuals have found their mentality and do something in between. Some people “are often more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully considered. To succeed, they work slowly and meticulously.” Others are focused on winning and do everything in their power to win. Although the approaches are different, both have the same end goal: success. If it works well for them, I do not see why they should change their methods. Not everyone is built the same, which is fine.
To conclude, these labeled perspectives are more descriptive than anything else. It describes how humans act, but I do not think one is right or wrong — the mentalities are dependent on what you value. If you value preserving your money, then playing to not lose is not a bad option. If you value the possibility of gaining more, then go for it. Or if you are good at reading body language, you should not be forced to learn how to count cards. People value different goals and work in unique ways. You should not feel pressured to adopt the “winning” mentality if it doesn’t work for you.
However, if you feel like you want to try something new or are tired of how things are, I encourage you to try something new. Don’t limit yourself if you want to try a new endeavour, but feel like it doesn’t fit who you are. Go and see which strategy works best for you. Find your strengths and cultivate them to become the best you.