Written by Matt Thomasson, Vice President of Engineering, Onsights.io
This article is going to appear to be less about business and more about life, but in the end it will be clear that these are one and the same. I’m going to start off with a little story.
I have 4 little boys, so it goes without saying that I’ve got my work cut out for me as a father. They have so much passion and energy and life… and they also have utterly no idea what they’re doing with it. Raising them to be positive forces in this world is the absolute challenge of my being. I’m not sure I have what it takes, but I’m determined to do my very best… and anyway, I guess by now it’s beside the point.
A few weeks ago I was playing soccer with my two oldest, who are 8 and 6 years old. For their whole lives up to this point, these two had been really competitive with each other. Oftentimes, when one lost a game (any game) it would result in a meltdown, name calling, or accusations of cheating. I had been harping on the “be a good sport” line for a long time and getting pretty much nowhere. It had become clear to me that they didn’t comprehend what that really meant, and I was having a hard time articulating it well enough for them to understand.
On this particular day, my oldest lost the soccer game and immediately had a meltdown and stormed off. As I watched him run away, I had an epiphany. I immediately pulled them together, calmed my oldest down, and had them sit for a chat.
“Boys, I have a secret for you,” I said, “what if I told you that whenever you play any game, there are actually two games going on at the same time?”
The response was silence, but I could tell that they were interested in my secret.
“And what if I told you that everyone knows about the first game, but almost no one knows about the second game?
More silence, but definitely more interest too–they both sat up straighter and were paying close attention.
“This secret second game is the most important game to win guys.”
I had them; they had those bright, focused eyes that kids get when they really want to hear a story.
“What is it Dad!? How do we play the second game!?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you. Now, everyone knows the objective of the first game — play within whatever rules are set out, and play to win. You guys know that one, right? That’s the game you guys have been playing your whole life. That’s the game you get so frustrated about losing, right?
“Yeah that’s just normal playing Dad.”
“Well, it’s time I teach you about the 2nd game. The 2nd game is actually a lot more interesting and a lot more important. I call it the long game.”
The boys were rapt (an extremely rare occurrence for their age) and I proceeded to explain to them the difference between what I call the short game and the long game.
As I said above, the short game doesn’t need any explanation — it’s the game everyone plays and it ends with the buzzer, or the whistle, or when you’re in check mate, or… you get the picture.
The long game on the other hand, never ends. It is a cumulative game in which points aggregate over the course of each individual’s entire life. This game occurs acutely during each individual competition, but it permeates and impacts every human interaction outside these games as well. The objective of the long game is simple and beautiful, and it’s the same in every competition: play the game such that the other people involved want to play with you again.
This is not just “being a good sport”, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t be competitive, or that you should let your opponent win, or that you should spend the whole game chatting. You absolutely should try your best to win the short game every time. Playing the long game simply means that while you’re trying your best, you’re also acting honorably, treating people with respect, being a good leader, staying positive, not whining, and in general being a human of Quality (with a capital Q).
Here’s a little thought experiment to illustrate the value of thinking about competition this way. If you win the short game–but show everyone during the competition that you’re an arrogant, untrustworthy, mean-spirited, winner take all competitor– what have you really accomplished? Will those people want to play against you again next time? Probably not. But even worse, let’s look outside the game for a moment: will those people be likely to trust you in the future? Will they be likely to help you if you ever need it? Will they want to be a friend, an ally, a coworker, or a business partner? Again, probably not.
Thinking in these terms, it becomes clear what the most important part of any game is. Every game–every competition–is an opportunity to demonstrate your virtue, your mettle, your grace under pressure, your honor, and your Quality (again, that capital Q) to others. Do this consistently, and you’ll have no shortage of friends and allies in your life. The flip side of this, of course, is that it’s also an opportunity to show just how petty, deceitful, mean, and dishonorable you can be. Do this consistently, and you’ll surely lead a lonely life.
There’s more here as well; let’s take another step back in our thought experiment and go a bit deeper with this concept. From the perspective of this “secret” second game, is there really any difference between a game of soccer and a multimillion dollar negotiation? Or a game of Monopoly and a sales call? I would argue that there is not. In competition, as in business, as in life, the same principle applies — you need to conduct yourself in such a way that the people around you want to deal with you again in the future. If you do not, you’ll find yourself out of new opportunities, new clients, and new partners more quickly than you can possibly imagine.
Now, there certainly are plenty of stories of cut-throat business people who grind their opponents into dust during negotiations. And it’s true that you can behave that way for a short period of time, but it will not work forever. This is why I call the second game “the long game.” Each time you burn a bridge with someone, that’s one less advocate and ally in this world to help you the next time you need it. And trust me, it is a very small world. Eventually, cut-throat business people all end up the same way — lonely and never truly happy.
Think of it this way — you can use your daily competitions, games, or other interactions with people as opportunities to continually add allies and friends to your life, or you can use them as opportunities to shrink the group of people that will ever want to deal with you again. True wealth in this life is built by the former strategy, never the latter. The business world is rife with losers of the long game, if you pay attention you’ll see them everywhere. So here’s to not adding to their ranks!
These days, every time I find my boys playing a game, I do the same thing:
“Who’s winning, boys?”
Their answer doesn’t matter really, I always follow up with this:
“But who’s winning the long game?”
So, next time you’re playing a game, negotiating a contract, selling your product, or any other human interaction, do your world a favor and remind yourself: the game that really matters is the long game.
About the Author
Matt Thomasson is the Vice President of Engineering at Anno.Ai. Prior to joining Anno, Matt founded and exited a successful startup, spent 10 years in U.S. federal service — deploying and operating in over 35 different countries — and served as a Value Stream Leader at Collins Aerospace / Raytheon. Matt has a highly diverse technical background with experience and expertise in engineering development, operations, logistics, field deployments, business, philosophy, and leadership.