What Does ‘Winning’ Mean for You?

In an athletic contest, it’s easy to figure out what winning is: You score more points than your opponent. In business, while the scoreboard may be more complex, it generally measures (1) profits, (2) growth and (3) value creation. This is generally straightforward enough in the short run to know if your business is winning or not.

But what about in life? With so many responsibilities to juggle, it’s tempting to see mere granular victories as winning – getting to work on time, completing an assignment under budget, buying a home, getting children into college, covering medical expenses, losing weight, remembering birthdays, to name a few. The list of tasks is endless, so most of us end up categorizing life’s demands under the headings of (a) work, (b) family, (c) social and (d) personal.

Most of us try to optimize in each category, allocating a certain amount of time to each. Finding the correct tradeoffs between and within categories is idiosyncratic – and many individuals describe their success at such multi-tasking “work-life balance.” There’s hardly anything objective about it, but when people find their own sweet spot, it can feel like winning.

I consider this sort of juggling more like coping than winning. If that’s how it feels to you, consider one way I’ve chosen to fix it. My method requires firm but imperfect choices. This has meant figuring out what’s more important and what’s less important – and, above all, being happy with the implications of doing well in some of the categories at the expense of the others. You simply cannot master every challenge, and there are tradeoffs to every choice (including making no choice at all).

Continuing to ache for what you must give up is a way to torture yourself. Revisiting your choices is another way to generate unhappiness and multiply your sense of inadequacy. For me, failing to think through my own tradeoffs systematically was a way to ensure I agonized over every choice and spent too much time deciding rather than actually doing. I finally found a measure of peace when I fully embraced the notion of tradeoffs – decisively giving up something that matters for something that matters more.

For me, then, “winning” in life became a matter of focus, simplifying, and therefore, tradeoffs. My own decision was to put family and work above personal and social. And within this hierarchy (which had its own intra-category priorities), I put my kids above my work. I determined that, above all else, I wanted my kids to grow up with confidence and respect for others, no matter their station. My goal was to give them opportunities to grow into maturity with every physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual advantage, focused on hard work and chances to overcome failure. I knew I would only have a short time when they’d still allow me to be a river guide for them, and so kids had to trump.

Thus, so long as I felt was being a “good dad,” I could devote all remaining energy to building businesses, with very little left over for social or personal categories. My prioritization came at a cost. For example, I didn’t always get enough exercise – and, when I did, I multitasked during it. I surely didn’t play golf. And to the chagrin of my doctor, it also meant less sleep. But because the priorities were ones I’d intentionally chosen, I don’t regret or revisit those costs. And, looking back on it, I consider that I indeed had work-life harmony that felt like winning to me. The tradeoffs and choices might not feel the same way to others, but for me it was a victory.

Heading off to my 50th year high school reunion in a month or so, I expect to see in my classmates a broad range of accumulated tradeoffs as they tried to find “winning in life.” Each will have met challenges, made choices, learned lessons. My advice to those at the front end of their life journey: Imagine winning by thinking about what the scoreboard should be for your life and then relentlessly optimize around it with no regrets.

By Joel Peterson