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The Paradox of Winning

Factors of Success

September 14, 2020

I recently read the book Open by Andre Agassi. It is widely considered one of the best sports autobiographies written in recent years. As I read the book, I found it interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that Agassi repeatedly says the phrase “I hate tennis.” The people he says this to repeatedly either think that he isn’t being serious or that he has a poor attitude in general and that it is coloring his comments.

I believe I may have stated in the past that I see strategy everywhere, but I would add that I also think in analogies. I always have. Some idiosyncratic part of my brain likes to change things into situations that may on their surface, not seem to apply, but are my way of more deeply processing what I am observing or making sense of what information I am taking in.

I like tennis — it’s actually my favorite sport. I enjoy watching it and I enjoy playing it. As I read Agassi’s book, I noticed that my preconceptions about him as a player were incrementally stripped away, replaced by what he was sharing about himself as a person. He wasn’t given a choice about tennis — it isn’t something he picked for himself — and throughout his life, it has been the singular mechanism around how he has self-actualized.

It is also interesting to me that when Agassi describes the matches he plays, he completely dissects them. From why he is playing that match, how he decided to play or not, what he was wearing, who was in the stands, what past history he has with the players and shared experiences they have had on and off the court; to the extent that winning or not winning becomes a logical outcome of the decisions he made along the way, leading to the end of the match.

Success from Self-Discovery

There is absolutely no doubt that he is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. But I would add that the true genius of his play is that his success wasn’t rooted in winning — it was rooted in self-testing and self-discovery. It was motivated by an acknowledgement of an existing skill that could be leveraged in various forms using seemingly unrelated variables to create a specific outcome. If winning came, it was a by-product of the other factors that culminated into a desirable result.

This is a core principal of strategy. It is essential to understand that winning is more than something that you can achieve by hurling technical skill at it. It is built from a complex exploration of the pieces and parts that make up the nuances of an organization’s self-actualization and self-exploration — capacity, knowledge, skills, abilities, resources, capabilities, identity, culture, personality. Winning is the logical outcome of creating a strategy that utilizes these variables in the right proportions. If you take the time to address each one successfully, then winning will take care of itself.

There is strategy to be seen and observed no matter where you go. Agassi’s journey as a tennis player underscores the idea that focus on a wider range of contributing factors and a diminished focus on or lessening of a myopic view of “winning” actually increases the likelihood of designing and creating the desired end result.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.