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April 28, 2023

Conscious Competition

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What can we learn about conscious leadership by playing Euchre with Diana Chapman?

Recently a friend sent me an article about Steph Curry: The Baby Faced Assassin: Can someone be a competitive killer and still be a nice person? (Spoiler alert, the author’s answer is yes and Steph is just that). But, as I read the article I found myself interested in the question:

Can someone be an intense competitor, even a competitive killer, and still be a conscious leader? 

Common questions leaders ask as they begin the conscious leadership journey are, “Will I lose my edge?” or “Will I become soft?” or “Will I lose my desire to compete and win?” Not everyone asks, but for some competing and winning has been definitional to their identity. Like Steph, they are competitive killers.  

For these people, I often begin my coaching relationship with a reflection on the compatibility of being a competitive killer and being a conscious leader. I ask my new clients to identify the benefits and costs of fiercely competing. 

The benefits are often quite clear; they win a lot. They also have great intensity, focus, engagement and stamina. They have honed a set of skills that give them a reliable competitive advantage. They get the payoffs of winning: to the winner go the spoils. 

We then turn our attention to the costs. If they can’t identify any downsides, our discussion usually ends. I’ve learned that if they’re aware only of the upsides, they’ll lack sufficient motivation to explore alternatives. 

For those that are in touch with the downsides they list some variation of the following:

Lack of Sustainability

Living as a competitive killer takes a toll. One toll is physical. Physically, the body pays from lack of sleep, living on adrenaline and dopamine, and sprinting without creating time to recover. Many can and do get away with paying this price in the first stage of their life, but after a certain age the costs to physical health and wellbeing becomes less tolerable. 

Relational Impacts

Many competitive killers report that having only this gear speed has cost them many important relationships with intimate partners, friends, business associates and kids. Kids are often the big one; the one they reference in their 50s and beyond when identifying their regrets. It’s the regret of being so mono-focussed that they didn’t spend quality time with their kids. This mindset affected how they parented because they needed their kids to be equally focused, to get top grades so they could get into the right schools, be the best at sports and other activities, be special, unique, set apart, and win.

Disappointment in Results

Again, this often isn’t realized until the game is over. It’s characterized by something like this: “I believed that if I won (money, power, fame) then I’d be ___________  (happy, secure, special, free, content, able to walk away, etc). I was struck that at a recent gathering of billionaires, one asked the other nine: “From 1-10, how happy are you when you wake up in the morning?” None of them had a number above 6. This should interest anyone who is trading off the present for the promise of the future. 

So, if you don’t have an adequate reason to explore another way of playing the game, I get it. My counsel would be to keep playing it the way you're playing it. 

If you think there is value in exploring the question,“Is there such a thing as a conscious competitor, as competing above the line?” and, “If I play this way, will I win?”  I want to suggest that the answer is yes and offer the following thoughts. 

My business partner, Diana Chapman is a great example of a conscious competitor. I remember trying to take a nap in an airport but not being able to sleep because of the trash talking going on a few feet away as Diana was in an all-out battle to determine who would be Euchre champion for the day. For those of you not from the midwest, Euchre is a card game and a quasi-religion all rolled into one. From Indiana, Diana, was baptized into Euchre at an early age. She is a competitive killer while being a conscious leader. 

I can hear you saying, “Really, you’re going to compare Euchre, a card game, to my work, to managing money (other people’s money), leading a startup that is hanging on by a thread, research on healing disease, getting to partner in my firm …… all things that involve real people and real money and high stakes?” Yes, I am. Bear with me.., 

What is conscious competition (competition from above the line)? 

1. Full engagement.

Conscious competitors are fully engaged in the game with head, heart, gut and body. They are fully present. They don’t have any desire to be anywhere else doing anything else. They are not distracted or compromised. When it’s game time everything else recedes to the background. 

Years ago, I coached John Rogers, the founder of Ariel Capital. John is the answer to the question in the article above about Steph Curry. He is both a killer competitor and a truly nice person. John played basketball for the legendary Princeton basketball coach, Pete Carril. One of the things he brought to Ariel from Carril and Princeton was the idea of game time. What game time means is that when it’s game time you’re focused solely on the game. Our coaching sessions were sometimes during game time. There was no small talk. None.  When we met during non-game time John was pleasant as can be and  we had fun conversations about what we did last weekend, sports, or politics. . Just not during game time. 

Not every conscious competitor draws such a bright line between game time and non-game time but they all have a whole body YES, a hell YES to being fully in the game. I have heard many leaders over the years express that they are not fully in the game, certainly not like they used to be. They are questioning, even doubting themselves and the game. It’s an act of vulnerability for them to express these doubts and it also makes them vulnerable to killer competitors who are fully in the game. One investment banker in his mid forties told me recently that if he’s not working 18 hours a day he knows for sure a twenty something who wants his job is. 

When the Euchre game is on, Diana is in the game, passionately, purposefully, fully engaged. If you’re not fully in the game—your game—you can’t be a conscious competitor because, quite simply, you’re not fully conscious. 

I say all this because some believe that if they compete from above the line they’ll somehow lose their focus and engagement. This isn’t true.

If anything, the more one is devoted to living and working in their zone of genius and  living aligned with their greatest purpose (two characteristics of conscious leaders) the more focussed and engaged they are. 

2. Intense but not serious. 

If you watch Diana play Euchre she is intense but not serious. She is in it to win it. Losing is not an option worth considering. 

Again, I hear you, “Of course, Euchre is a game. My career is not a game. My career is serious.” 

Many competitive killers are incapable of playing a game, any game, and not taking it seriously. Many of us have witnessed a golfer throw a club, a tennis player break a racquet in a profane laced tirade, or the loser of a board game sulk their way home not talking to anyone for hours. These people are taking games seriously. So it’s not a given that Diana, or anyone, can play a game with great intensity and not take it seriously. 

Next I suggest that YOU get to decide what’s a game and what isn’t, what needs to be taken seriously and what doesn’t. Life doesn’t come prelabeled as serious and not serious. You are the labeler. 

To take something seriously is to make that thing a referendum on who you are; on your value and worth as a human being. To take something seriously is to invest that something with the ability to determine whether you matter. You’re giving that something the ability to provide you with, or keep you from, experiencing ultimate security. People who go into a rage and throw their golf clubs have, in that moment, made something that isn’t serious, serious. They have made where their ball goes a referendum on their value, their ability to control life and their sense of security and well being. They have given golf a value and power it was never meant to have. 

Again, you say, “Of course, we can all see that making golf or Euchre a referendum on who we are is silly. But my job, my relationship, and my children are a referendum on who I am.” 

Are they? 

If your identity is so fragile that a stock trade, a lost deal, your boss’s disapproval or your partner’s tone of voice throws you into a tailspin you’re not a very conscious leader at that moment. You have outsourced your sense of self to your work or your partner and when you do that you can’t compete from above the line because you’re  below the line. 

When we make something serious we contract, tighten up, stop breathing, and give into short-term reactive thinking. We stop learning and being available to the moment because we simply have to win, because in that moment winning really is everything. I suggest that when you’re in that state of consciousness you’re not playing your best game. You might be intense because you’ve made something life or death (of the ego) but you’re not conscious. 

Conscious competitors have spent great amounts of time stabilizing their sense of self so that it is not so fragile as to be dependent on the results of a game or activity. They have rooted who they are in an unchanging clarity that provides a constant sense of OK-ness. This allows them to be completely present to the game at hand and to be in the game with a tremendous sense of proportionality. They know what matters and what doesn’t.

3. Aware of their deeper motivations.

I spent a number of years working with leaders in the investment world. During that time I was exposed to behavioral finance which, simply put, explores and documents dozens of cognitive biases and deviations from rational decision-making. Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to this movement. (As an aside, one commentator said at the time that a psychologist winning the Nobel prize in economics was akin to a history professor winning the prize in physics). 

As I worked with leaders I discovered that these cognitive biases were directly tied to deeper motivations. I call these deeper motivations, passions. What I discovered was that it was their passions that gave rise to their distorted thinking. This discovery is what led me to see the value in understanding the cognitive-emotive loop, which describes . how our emotions interact with our thinking. Our passions are even deeper than our emotions. 

I got interested in passions from my exposure to the Enneagram. In the Enneagram world, passions are a foundational emotional state that control and drive many of our behaviors and thoughts. Feelings, as we talk about them at CLG are short lived, they pass through us. Our passions are more of a condition, an orientation or a whole being state.

The Enneagram identifies 9 core passions—Anger, Pride, Deceit, Envy, Avarice/Greed, Fear, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth—and suggests that each of us is driven by one of these 9 passions, though we can have and are affected by all of them. The 9 passions are:

When I coached high stakes investors, I was particularly attuned to the passions of greed and fear and at one point I could see how most of the behavioral finance traps were tied to greed and fear. Now as I work with leaders, and competitors from all the various games, I see that all the passions distort thinking and decision making and behaving. 

For this reason, I think it is critical for each of us to understand our core passion and how, when activated, it keeps us stuck below the line. When we are in the grip of our passion we are not consciously competing. Trying to be a conscious competitor without knowing and understanding your passion is like running a marathon with a 50 lb weight around your ankles. 

Diana would say that her core passion is lust, a lust for more, especially more intensity. If she isn’t aware of her lust it can affect how she plays Euchre. In her desire to want more she can make errors in judgment that could greatly affect how she plays the game. 

4. Creating win for alls.

Competitive killers are all about winning and losing. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Their life is driven by not being the loser. Conscious competitors understand that at the end of the game someone usually has more points than the other, whether those points are dollars, patents, market share, rank and power, or points in a Euchre game. In fact, conscious competitors know that this is part of the fun of the game. Often they don’t like playing games where no one keeps score and everyone gets the same trophy. 

But they play as though there is something beyond or, in addition to, the scoreboard. As I said above, they don’t make winning and losing a referendum on who they are. Their identity is not affected by their point total. Because of this, they value learning more than winning. They know that often winning is out of their control but learning is under their control. They play the game to learn and grow. The game, including the points, is a constant source of feedback. And they are feedback junkies. 

Often people addicted to winning are driven, not just by their desire to win, but by their desire for others to lose; to crush the competition. Conscious competitors don’t want to crush the competition. In fact, they genuinely want the competition to flourish. 

They see their fellow competitors as allies and equals and not as obstacles and impediments that need to be overcome. This view of one’s competitors is critical to being a conscious competitor.

This is because all the greatest conscious competitors understand two things: SUFFICIENCY and ONENESS. Sufficiency is the experience that there is enough. Life, and this game, does not need to be zero-sum. Oneness means that they have a direct, deep, and profound experience that what affects the other affects them and vice versa. The deepest reality for them is that there is no other. There is no one over there to crush. 

The conscious competitor has spent years cultivating a deep, reliable experience of sufficiency and through various practices has seen through the illusion of separateness. 

I think there is more that we can all learn and explore about conscious competition; my desire here is to begin a dialogue. My personal belief is that our world is ready for a new view of competition and an emergence of people who love to play the game, and who compete intensely and consciously. 

If you’re interested in this exploration, here are some questions for you:

  1. Am I willing to explore conscious competition? Unless you have a real YES to exploring this, I strongly suggest that you stick with your current program. 
  2. How is my current relationship to competition working? How is it serving me? What is it costing me? 
  3. Am I all in with what I’m doing? Am I fully engaged? If not, what is keeping me from full engagement? 
  4. Am I willing to stop taking my game and myself so seriously? Am I willing to source the satisfaction of my deepest needs and wants from something more reliable than how I’m performing at the game? What practice will I do to stabilize my sense of self  on a foundation that is unshakable?
  5. Am I willing to go beyond win/lose to win for all? Am I willing to see competitors as allies and not obstacles? Am I willing to want them to do their best? What practices will I do to cultivate a deep experience of the oneness that is underneath apparent separation?

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