Don’t Try to Win, Try Not to Lose

Or: The Ultimate Strategy for Becoming Good at Table Tennis

Don’t Try to Win, Try Not to Lose

I have one of the best tactics for succeeding in table tennis: Instead of trying to win, I try not to lose.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but I don't think it is. There's something here that's easy to overlook.

Think about the last time you played table tennis. How many points did you win by making a really good shot? And how many points did you lose by making some kind of mistake? (e.g., by trying to make a good shot?)

In table tennis (and many other contexts), most points are won not by hitting a good shot, but by the opponent making a mistake.

So if your goal is to become a better table tennis player, focus your attention on avoiding mistakes, not on making good shots. Focus on being good at returning the ball safely, and then wait for your opponent to blunder.

Often the answer to “How can I be a better?” is “By sucking less.”

To me, this is a completely different way of looking at the world, a paradigm that is easy to miss. For example:

  • Instead of asking, "How can I be a better partner?" you could ask, "What does a bad partner do and how can I avoid doing that?"
  • Instead of the question, "What do successful people in my field do?" you could ask, "What do they not do?”
  • Rather than asking, "How can I improve my French?" you might ask, "Which mistakes do French language learners make and how can I avoid them?”

Knowing where you don't want to go is just as valuable as knowing where you do want to go. Studying the opposite of what you want may be the key to achieving our goals.

I'm not saying that you should never try to win, that you should never try to figure out how to improve. But often that question should come much later than figuring out how you currently suck.

So the next time you think about your goals, try approaching them from a different angle.

Don’t try to win, try not to lose.

This is an excerpt of a post on Mental Garden, a regular newsletter designed to help you become a better human through guided introspections. Read the full post and sign up now.