Anyone who has watched an athletic competition knows that playing not to lose is not the same as playing to win. The best an individual or team could hope to achieve is a 0-0 tie. Life in the professional or academic world can be somewhat similar.
Avoiding errors is not entirely a bad idea. If you’re working in quality control, for example, you want to ensure that fewer errors are made. The problem with avoiding errors in life is that this approach doesn’t inspire. More to the point, if you’re struggling to avoid doing wrong, you’re not necessarily pursuing what’s right–for yourself or others.
Personally, I found the difference between avoiding errors and pursuing excellence during my two degrees. My grade point average was 3.29 the first time, 3.85 the second. The difference? Motivation. The first time I got a degree, I was trying to make sure I didn’t annoy the professors overmuch, but I couldn’t say that I was gung-ho to become an English literature professor myself. I wanted to get a degree and get out. By the time I hit my late 20s, I knew what I wanted to do (write for the space industry) and I was excited to get on with it.
Likewise, in the professional world, I was much more interested in doing jobs that involved writing than I was doing well in some of my customer service jobs (merchandise, front desk, reservations). Again, much of my time was spent making sure I was following the rules rather than putting the rules to good use or seeking to improve operations.
So I put it to you, readers: are you putting your effort into avoiding negatives or pursuing things that move you to be a better person and do greater things?
You’re absolutely right, Bart. However, some of your readers might find themselves in a situation where their manager, or even the company culture, forces them to adopt a play-not-to-lose mindset. As employees, we need to be aware of when we’re being drawn into that mindset. As managers, we need to make sure we create an atmosphere where it’s OK to take risks and even to make a few mistakes.