Do you play to win or play not to lose?

3rd May 2020

A long time ago on a cattle ranch far, far away – in Texas actually – some enterprising ranchers who couldn’t afford to put cattle grids down across all roads on the ranch, experimented with painting stripes on the road to resemble a cattle grid. They figured that cattle were not terribly bright. And they were right – the herd stayed within the perimeter, fooled by the false cattle grids.

Other ranchers quickly realised the advantages, and very soon, these fake, painted “cattle grids” became all the rage in that part of the world. The cows – mostly an unchallenging lot – stayed within the range boundaries.

Then one day, many years later, some ranchers found a herd that had crossed the painted grid and were grazing on lush grass close by a river. They concluded that some cow had really examined the lines and finally understood that it was just paint! Realising that she had been fenced in for many years by a ‘pretend’ cattle grid, she led the other cows to better pastures…

What made this cow successful was not courage or intelligence – it was simply that she had considered the real evidence, rather than rely on herd wisdom. Her examination of the evidence led her to realise that she and others had been fenced in for many years by false barriers. The “cattle grids” only existed in the minds of the herd!

The moral of this story relates to two extremely important things we need to examine more closely in any personal and organisational transformation process. We cannot change or grow without confronting Fear and Choice.

Fear, after all is only about “False Evidence Appearing Real” and the cow chose an adventure – to thrive in the pastures by the river, where she led the other cows in the herd, rather than to settle for the comfort zone behind the painted lines of the false cattle grid.

Fear is really what holds us back. We are all afraid of suffering, and ultimately of death. This death is not the physical death of the body, but ego-death. As young children growing up, we had bad experiences which led to particular kinds of suffering and we learned to adapt – to avoid those situations that might stress us, produce negative emotions or overwhelm us.

We all have very different and unique ways of avoiding stress and discomfort, but they ultimately coalesce in to two strategies. There is a very particular language we use to identify these two life-strategies: we learn to Play Not to Lose or we choose to Play to Win. The truth is that we all deploy both approaches. We can all identify times in our lives when we play not to lose and times when we play to win. The truly important issue is how conscious we are about our choices!


We choose this strategy because we believe our emotional survival is at stake. If we play not to lose, we are playing ‘the avoidance game’ – avoiding those situations where we might fail, be wrong, be rejected or shamed. We let fear stop us and keep us safe and small, we-defended inside our comfort zones. We avoid risk. We measure ourselves against others and would rather no-one wins, than that we lose. The pay-off is relief, that we have ‘got away with it’.


We choose this strategy in order to learn, grow and thrive. Winning in this context does not mean beating others. It means consciously choosing to go as far as we can with all that we have and learning from all that happens. We see opportunity rather than threat in situations, and we decide to venture in to the unknown in the hope that we thrive rather than just survive. We choose to consciously engage with life and commit wholeheartedly, rather than let our early-warning danger signals scare us into avoiding risk.

Making conscious choices presupposes that you know what you want. It also demands that you ask the question – are there real things here to fear, or am I just following the herd? It also demands that you get comfortable with discomfort.

The most important thing to understand about this language of Playing NOT to Lose or Playing to Win, is that we avoid value judgments. It is not a case of beating ourselves up if we Play Not to Lose – nor should we imagine that Playing to Win will give us all that we want. In fact, Playing to Win is most likely to confront us with what we fear most.

Playing to Win does not guarantee success. It simply guarantees that we stretch ourselves and come fully alive as human beings. In the process, we have to redefine winning and losing, and redefine what we count understand as success. And we have to learn to identify and cross many imaginary cattle grids.

Some of the ideas in this blog are drawn from the work of Wilson, L. & H. (1999) Play to Win! Choosing Growth Over Fear in Work & Life.

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