Submitted by: Sarah Yanosy, Director of the Sanctuary Institute
Today in my Nonprofit Executive Leader’s class at Columbia University, we talked about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. It reminded me of the Sanctuary expression we use that “safety and comfort are not the same thing.” It also made me think about the ways in which I have at times shied away from risks for fear of failing and what it means to step out of my comfort zone.
Last weekend, my 9 year old son gave me some insight around this. He plays basketball in our town on a team that made its way to the playoffs, mostly on the skill and talent of a boy named Eli. My son, Jonah, played a terrific season as a scrappy defensive player who would grab the ball and feed it to Eli for a score. He grew quite comfortable in this role and found his rhythm there with his team. For the final game of the season, Eli was sick. Jonah was called upon to take a different role, one pretty far outside his comfort zone. The whole team seemed rattled, knowing they were facing opponents with significant talent and height. His team, including my son, voiced some reservation along the lines of: “These guys are really good. We can’t win without Eli.” The first half was a disaster. Jonah took his usual role and got his hands on the ball in almost every play, but the ball never seemed to make its way to the basket. At the half, his coach gave him a pep talk, but I saw the panic in his eyes from the mere thought of taking on the leader role. He liked playing it safe, playing defensively, protecting the basket. These are exceptional attributes in a basketball player, but not the ones this team needed at the time. I overheard his coach say to him “I know those kids are good, but they have no idea how good you are. Go show them.”
My heart in my throat, I watched my little guy run out on the court and make calculated decisions about when to pass, when to drive to the basket, and when to drop back. The rest of the team followed suit with more confidence. They stopped trying to compensate for Eli’s absence and just went full force into the game. The ball still didn’t make its way into that hoop as many times as we would have hoped for, but the boys played hard and were fully invested in each other. He and his team didn’t win the game, but they played to win, and my son stretched the boundaries of his comfort zone. Jonah also won the respect of his fellow players, the respect of his coach and the overly enthusiastic and horribly embarrassing gushing of his mother. These were important gains and lessons, though he probably could have done without my gushing. I’m afraid he’ll just have to develop a new comfort zone for that too.