I’ve been reflecting a lot on my work and my career over the past few months and one of the things that I’ve been contemplating on the many similarities between work and team sports. Most successful businesses are the result of successful teams therefore many of the principles of what makes a great teams are also relevant in business. This then also got me to start reflecting on my own journey as well.

For context, I have never been particularly talented at sports and never went very far athletically. However, there were some very valuable life lessons that have been a corner stone of my career through my short athletic competitive experience.

Many businesses start with a collaboration of a few people on an idea. There will be an initial excitement on an idea. The people who collaborate on that idea may change along the way as interest from members of the initial group wanes or changes life focus. However, this isn’t a problem at this stage because there is very little at stake as it is just an idea. Success at this stage isn’t necessarily defined as financial viability of the idea. In my experience, it’s often about just moving the idea forward in order to find a market fit. In general, the definition of success is more loosely defined. This the play stage of the business. It’s very reminiscent of playing badminton while growing up in Malaysia. Everybody did it. The rules are more lax and winning wasn’t the focus. Rather it was about building friendships while learning a skill. You can get good enough at it and even beat out your friends. However, the wins are less meaningful outside of the feeling of personal success and even personal growth.

Playing competitively is a different ball game altogether. Winning matters as it’s the definition of competition. I was encouraged to try out for the high school team because I was winning all of my matches in gym class. Imagine my shock when I was beaten very badly by people who were playing on the team. I had to learn to play competitively in order to eventually make the team. One lesson stood out to me in particular. When I began training, I wasn’t allowed to hit the shuttle for the first few weeks of training. Instead, my coach had me focusing on footwork. It was bizarre to me because I couldn’t fathom how you’d learn to play without hitting the shuttle. My coach pointed out to me that learning to hit the shuttle didn’t matter if you couldn’t get there!

There are many similar principles that apply when evolving the business to compete in the marketplace. There is a level of underlying business disciplines that you have to master for your business to flourish. Like playing competitively, the foundation of your business success starts with hard work. However, that hard work has to be layered in with boring and tedious discipline so that it eventually becomes muscle memory. Keeping track of your finances comes to mind as a boring but obvious tasks. It seems tedious until you have to file your appropriate taxes at the end of the year. Another really critical task that many businesses forego is planning and go straight to doing. Without a plan, there are no guarantees that your tasks will accomplish what needs to get done. You want your basic foundational tasks to be done without hesistation and it isn’t a chore. Rather you’d consider it basic hygiene; these are things that just need to be done.

As your business evolves and your revenues start to increase, you are starting to compete in different levels in the marketplace and the disciplines you need to master increases as the space you’re playing in gets more complex and competitive. The same goes with your career. As your roles evolve and your responsibilities increase, you are starting to compete in different levels and the discipline required to be successful also gets more complex. However, the discipline that drives you is what allows you to focus on your career or business success.

Playing Competitively in Business