Simon Ramo, an engineer, businessman, and author, wrote a neat little book that most people probably haven’t heard of: Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players.
I’m not a huge tennis follower. The reason this book is interesting to me is that Ramo highlights the difference between the Winner’s Game and a Loser’s Game adopting the lens of pro v amateur.
Some amateurs believe they are professionals but professionals never identify as amateurs. Both play by the same rules and scoring, use the same court, and sometimes even the same equipment.
The main difference?
All things being equal, professionals score points whereas amateurs lose points. It’s a professional’s game to win, and an amateur’s game to lose.
Consider a professional match. Opponents are equally matched. They play nearly a perfect game. They go back and forth until the ball is just too far out of reach. The positioning, control, spin of the ball is no accident. It’s a game of milliseconds and centimeters.
Two Games, Two Kinds of Decisions
Ramo came by his philosophy not by looking at total scores, but by focusing on points won versus points lost.
In pro tennis roughly 80 percent of the points are won; in amateur tennis, roughly 80 percent of the points are lost. These games are distinct and create the perfect foil for one another.
Since there are two discrete games, a generic strategy will not work for both games Simon devised a strategy by which ordinary players can win by losing less and letting the opponent defeat themselves.
… but you have to recognize that the game is won and lost on decisions. You have to choose to win at tennis. You have to decide to make fewer mistakes v simply enjoying yourself. That means you play a tighter, more conservative game. Keeping to solid basics, you give your opponent a lot of space in which to make as many mistakes as possible because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.
If you’re an amateur your focus should be on avoiding making bad decisions.
Play Your Own Game
Warren Buffett and Ben Graham gathered a group of people called the “Buffett Group.” At one such meeting Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor and teacher, gave them all a quiz. The reference comes from Benjamin Graham on Value Investing: Lessons from the Dean of Wall Street.
A true-false quiz where half of the answers were true and half were false. Most in the room scored less than 10 correct.
Deceptively simple, Buffett explained. “It was to illustrate a point, that the smart fellow kind of rigs the game.” In the late 60s, there was a lot of questionable accounting going on, much like today. And if you think you can find an “in” to take advantage of it, you are playing the other guy’s game, not your own.
We Are All Amateurs, All Of Us
None of us want to believe it. The engineer who looks back on a 25-year career, the CEO who has run a few companies, the founder who has a few exit stories–male, female, young, old–we are all amateurs. If we really care about what we do, we are always learning to become better.
If we identify with professionals we mistakenly think we are playing a professional game. With greater self-awareness, we need to approach the game with new eyes. Rather than trying to play a winner take all game, focusing on the win, the review, the bonus, or the payoff–we should avoid making mistakes.
We should focus on the obvious, return to and relearn the basic mechanics of good management and leadership.
This was a point Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, made a long time ago.
In a letter to Wesco Shareholders, where he was at the time Chairman (and found in the excellent Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger), Munger writes:
Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. … It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, `It’s the strong swimmers who drown.’
I miss the Mungers, the Druckers, the Woodens–and so many other greats. In the repacking of their ideas by others decades later, the simplicity and wisdom of their message gets lost amidst the din of Tweets, 4-day workweeks, and 3-steps toward more effective meetings.
Someone needs to make that quote into a poster.