Last fall we signed up our middle child, who was 4 and a half at the time, for youth soccer. He’d watched his older brother play for the last two years and wanted badly to play on his own team.
When we got the jersey from the coach he wore it around the house with his hand-me-down soccer cleats for what seemed like a week straight. The smile on his face was as big as the oversized shirt on his tiny frame.
We practiced in the backyard together. I’d pass him the ball and he’d cheer and shout with every goal he scored.
The big day came, a beautiful Saturday morning. All the work – the strutting around the house, the joy and cheering, the countless goals in the backyard – led up to this. He walked onto the field a tad hesitant but still willing. My wife and I and his two other brothers sat on the sidelines with anxious anticipation.
The teams lined up on their youth-sized field, five players per side. The other team waited for the whistle from the referee to start the game.
As soon as the whistle blew, my son stood there as the other team huddled around the ball – as only 4 year olds can do – and dribble-passed it down the field, tripping over each other, to ultimately score the first goal.
I could see the tears well up on my son’s face. He stood still in an attempt at being stoic, but was unable to hold his emotions for long. I saw it coming – as his dad I’d seen it dozens if not hundreds of times before.
He looked at me and I knew it was over. I walked on to the field and picked him up, and he let it all out. Huge cries accompanied huge tears. Soccer broke him, and all it took was about 15 seconds.
So what happened?
After I got him to calm down and regain his composure, I asked him, “what’s the matter?”
His response cut me to the core:
“They didn’t give me the ball!”
The tears welled up again and he buried his face into my arms.
I realized at that moment that I had failed my son. I forgot to teach him one of the fundamental principles of the game of soccer – that the other team isn’t going to give you the ball.
This story has stuck with me over the last 6 months or so, and has become one of the biggest breakthroughs for me spiritually, financially, and across my whole life.
In order to succeed, you have to know the “rules of the game”.
I have found that there are true principles that govern everything we do.
Yet, so often – like my son – we see someone else having success and we decide to try our hand at it without fully understanding the “rules of the game” or the principles that govern the thing we’re trying to do.
Like seeing a friend with 1 million YouTube subscribers and thinking, “yeah, I should start a YouTube channel”, or a relative with a six-figure-a-year clothing business she started in her basement and thinking, “I could do that!”
I’m not saying you can’t do that, but I AM saying that if you dive head first without any awareness of or respect for the rules of the rules of the game, you’re going to have a hard time finding any success.
Think about it this way: you sit down to a brand new game that you just got on Kickstarter. There are dozens of pieces, hundreds of cards of various types, a timer, six tokens, and a hat for someone to wear, supposedly.
How would you even know where to start if you didn’t read the instructions?
How would you know what to do next?
How would you know how to win?
What’s hard is that we often don’t think of creative pursuits as having rules. This is RIGHT brain territory, where creativity and imagination are allowed to run free! RULES? We don’t need no stinking RULES!
How’s that working out?
For me, it didn’t work out at all. I spent nearly a decade beating my head against a wall trying to figure out how to “hustle” more, or trying to get more followers, or a myriad of other “hacks” and “tactics” to try and brute force my way into a successful career and successful projects. I read all the books, listened to the podcasts, went to the conferences and the meet ups and the networking events. Nothing moved the needle. NOTHING.
It failed every time.
The sad thing is that I’m 34 and I’m just barely learning this lesson. Talk about humbling.
I was going about it all wrong. I had skipped an essential step: learning the rules of the game.
Now, I had an awareness of the rules of the game. I could tell you how to grow your business, or make money off of your art, or get more followers or, or, or, or…
But when it came to my own career, I wasn’t abiding by the principles I was teaching others. I wasn’t playing by the rules.
There’s a difference between having an awareness of the rules, and learning the rules.
Back to our game metaphor. How do you learn the rules? First, you read the manual. Then, you play the game, over and over, until you’ve internalized the rules of the game. Even then, after dozens of rounds of gameplay, you still every now and then have to consult the rule book because you can’t remember. You learn the rules by playing the game.
But what if I lose?
Here’s another takeaway: when you play the game, you’re also – by default – accepting that there will be times where you lose. Someone else will play the game better than you, whether by luck or because they have more experience playing the game, and you will lose.
Does that mean you failed? No, not permanently anyway. It means you haven’t yet learned how to play the game at that level. It means you haven’t internalized the principles. It means you don’t have a strategy that’s been worked out and tested yet.
You can’t get lucky if you don’t try.
But the only way to get those things is to play the game.
Can you succeed without learning the rules of the game? Sure. You could get lucky. It’s possible, certainly, but it’s a terrible long-term strategy. You wouldn’t want to base a career on a lack of understanding of the basic rules of the game. But what about the friend on Instagram who’s getting paid tons of money in sponsorship deals despite paying for the first 10,000 followers?
Just because they’re playing the game differently doesn’t mean they’re right. It doesmean that they did the work to understand the rules enough to know how to shortcut the process, or how to “hack” the game in their favor. It doesn’t mean we want to do the same. The difference between them and you is action. They at least stepped up to play the game.
There’s a process in here that we can pull out and apply to anything in our own lives.
Learn the rules of the game > play the game > gain experience > put together a strategy > know how to win consistently.
The harder the game, the longer it takes to get good at it. Put another way, any time you see an “overnight success”, what you’re actually seeing is the outcome of work, of playing the game, often over hundreds or thousands of nights.
Here’s the best part about all of this though. While the rules may seem restricting, or cumbersome, or arduous, while they may be so overwhelming that it makes you lose any desire to even try to play the game, they also do something else.
Something life changing.
The Rules Tell You What To Do Next.
Around the same time as the incident with my son’s soccer game, I realized that I had failed in another aspect of my life as well. I have attended hundreds of meet ups and networking events and conferences in my career, and inevitably at the end of every keynote or panel, when it comes time for the Q&A, I shake my head, fully aware of what’s to come:
“How do I succeed at X?”
“I tried this and it’s already been two weeks and I only gained 10 followers”
“No one is buying my stuff”
Answers that I used to think were stupid and entitled. “Tell me what to do next so I don’t have to figure it out for myself” is how I translated those questions. Oh, and the responses were even worse:
“Hire me as a consultant for $1,000 a month”
Here’s where I failed though: I chose to look down on these people who were asking these questions, and I chose to gag at the responses. What I should have done – and what I’ve since chosen to do as much as I can remember to do it – is to see these questions as a cry for help, to translate them into “I don’t know what to do next”.
They just didn’t know the rules of the game. I should be helping them, not criticizing them.
I wanted to be a self-help writer, to put up helpful blog posts, to create courses for creatives, yet I wasn’t playing by the rules of the game. I was hurting more than I was helping, just as I had done inadvertently while teaching my son to play soccer in the backyard. I’d forgotten an essential part of the process.
What About You? What Game Are You Trying To Play?
What is it that you’re trying to do? Start or grow a business? Make some money from your art? Influence more people?
What are the rules of the game? Where can you go to learn them? Who’s successfully played the game before you that you could learn from? How can you start playing the game, getting some experience, figuring out your own winning strategy? What does success look like for you?
What should you do next?
I’ve spent the last few months writing down every principle I can think of when it comes to being a creative professional. I’m going to share them here on the blog as well as in some courses that I’m putting together. The first one is encapsulated in this short, 5-email course called Anything You Want, which expands on this principle of learning the rules of the game. If you enjoyed this post, I know you’ll like this course. It’s free, and you can get the first lesson with just putting in your email address below. Thanks for reading!