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Playing Not To Lose And The Art Of The Scramble

I had a rather uneventful Junior College wrestling career. Uneventful in terms of my record, but not the experience. Our team was second in the nation, and the gentleman in my weight class, “Tom,” was a national champ. Most practice sessions were an education in humility for me, but there were even better lessons learned. Some I’m still learning.

Dan Sullivan says that most people have a vast amount of undigested experience. Recently I’ve been “digesting” an aspect of my wrestling experience as I consider the path ahead.

As with many difficult endeavors, it takes years to become a successful wrestler. I started late, so I often felt outmatched. As a result, I took a defensive approach. I always struggled to maintain control or, more accurately, not to lose control. In effect, I was playing not to lose.

Tom was a master of the scramble: those instances where neither wrestler has the advantage. In fact, he’d ask team members to put him in predicaments that they didn’t think he could extricate himself from, and I never saw him fail to escape and reverse the advantage. To do so, he had to find a way to move from being controlled to being in control. The space between those two states is called the scramble. It’s those moments where control is up for grabs or “catch as catch can.”

Kurt Lewin, one of the forerunners of Social Science in the 1940's, developed a 3 stage change process that consists of an element similar to the scramble. The stages are:

1. Unfreezing - dismantling the current mindset

2. Change occurs - transition, discomfort and uncertainty <--The Scramble

3. Refreezing - the new mindset is crystalized and gradually becomes ingrained.

The scramble is easier to understand visually than it is to explain on the page. It looks like this on a wrestling mat:

Or, if you’re having trouble figuring out that tangle of arms and legs, it looks like this when I’m trying to figure out how to use “screen record” for this blog post (I gave up):

The important thing to note about the scramble is that while it’s the most risky element of the match, it’s also where most of the scoring opportunities arise, and this is at the heart of my reflection on the wrestling experience: back then my defensive strategy forced me to contend with two opponents instead of one. There was the opponent on the mat, but there was also the opponent in my head who was always trying to avoid the scramble.

The scramble is scary if you’re playing defense. It can be exhilarating if you’re playing offense.

I see a similar phenomenon in the creative projects I undertake, such as preparing a talk, or even this blog post. I have an initial idea, but once I begin putting the pieces together a number of loose ends and inconclusive ideas take shape. There comes a point where I'm struggling to wrestle the content into something clear and meaningful, but either the words don't come, or they splash onto the page in a morass of incoherence. I'm in the scramble.

In fact, virtually any new learning experience has this unfreeze - change - refreeze element to it. In the middle, when I'm unfamiliar with the material that the scramble emerges and the risk of a second opponent - my own self doubt or insecurities - entering the fray.

It's in the scramble that I also risk playing small and scaling back in order to just plow through it. To settle for the shell of an idea rather than the kernel. Trying not to create something bad. It's that defensive posture of playing not to lose.

The secret to playing to win in the scramble is that while it helps to have the fundamentals down, the only way to prepare oneself for the scramble is to practice scrambling. And if you can master the scramble, you'll eventually learn to embrace it, because you'll learn that this is where you'll find the opportunities to thrive.

Is there a significant change on your horizon? Consider Lewin's change model and anticipate the scramble and the temptation to play small.

Say you're trying to change a habit. There will likely be 3 stages. Right now your habit is in a controlled state. You'll need to 'uncontrol' it - to initiate the scramble of discomfort and that feeling of being off balance. Finally, begin implementing the new state by instilling support mechanisms that will crystallize the change or new state of control.

Now more than ever, in order to thrive, we must learn to master the scramble. It's not just about playing to win, it's a way of flourishing on the path ahead.

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