What is winning?
Rostislav Shorgin, a former student of mine who's in the process of launching a startup, asked himself this question at the end of a recent conversation.* We'd been talking about Rosti's tendency to get caught up in the desire to complete a demanding task as the hour grows late, in part because it would feel like a win to end the day. But as a result he sometimes finds himself losing perspective and staying up well past the point when it'll be possible to get a good night's sleep, which renders the following day much less productive.
Finishing the task and checking it off his list feels like a win in the moment, but in reality it's a net loss when he factors in the overall impact. Seeing this pattern in his behavior, Rosti paused and posed the question above, and it hung in the air, with a number of answers coming to mind:
Winning is directing our attention toward certain tasks and away from others so that we're able to make consistent, steady progress toward our most important goals. This involves not only willing ourselves to do work that we find unpleasant, but also tearing ourselves away from "pseudo-work" that seems useful but is actually of low importance.
Winning is managing our emotions (which, of course, are attention magnets) so that we're able to do the difficult work of focusing on critical tasks and minimizing distractions. This involves not only working through negative feelings, such as frustration and anxiety, that might hold us back, but also regulating positive feelings, such as excitement and eagerness, that might lead us astray.
Winning is saying no in order to dedicate our energies toward the work that is most meaningful and fulfilling to us. This involves not only developing accurate filters that allow us to identify and avoid unrewarding projects and tasks, but also the fortitude to turn down "good opportunities" in order to preserve the space that's necessary for greatness, both on our calendars and in our minds.
Winning is setting boundaries so that we're able to follow through on these intentions by insuring that while we pursue meaningful work we also nourish and replenish ourselves, so that we face each day's difficulties in the best possible state of mind. This involves not only turning work off on a regular basis, but also cultivating and protecting the habits that build our capabilities for all of the tasks above: meditation or other mindfulness practices, regular exercise, consistent sleep, and minimizing unnecessary stress.
*Rosti first encountered this question in Joel Peterson's section of Managing Growing Enterprises at Stanford. I was also a student of Joel's, many years ago, and today I still refer back to lessons I learned from him. Thanks to Rosti and Joel for the inspiration.
Photo by Daniel Lobo. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.