I was chatting with a colleague last week on a business development topic and at the end, probably as a way to encourage both of us to keep going, she concluded with the well-known adage: “It’s a numbers game”. While I acknowledged that, I paid no attention to the exact expression. I’m used to it, I’ve heard it dozens of times, I know what people mean by that – no need to reflect much on it. And then a couple of hours later, as serendipitous ideas often occur, it struck me. By thinking it’s a numbers game we were setting ourselves up for failure. And not because it’s the wrong idea but because there’s so much more to it than this. With hindsight, we should have been framing the issue as a “Learners’ game” instead.
Words are lenses
Saying that ‘It’s a learners’ game’ is a better way to think about business development (or pretty much anything for that matters) than ‘It’s a numbers game’ might seem a matter of semantics. As an aside, it’s quite unfortunate that ”a matter of semantics’ came to mean that a mutual understanding on something is not crucial for making progress on an issue, but that’s another matter. In fact, I strongly believe that few things posses more power to shape our behaviour than words. Words are lenses. They open perspectives and they close perspectives. They enlighten certain aspects of the network of our knowledge and they darken others. Just like lenses, they frame our thinking focusing us on certain items and leaving others outside of our attention.
Even more than this, all of our thinking is metaphorical, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson compellingly show: “In all aspects of life… we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.” Metaphors are devices to transfer meaning from one object to another, they help us understand previously unexplored topics and come up with new connections between things. Thus, metaphors help us grow our knowledge.
The dark side of metaphors is that more often than not we forget that they are metaphors. They thrive on the fact that they get so embedded in our language and thought, that we forget that someone made them up. What we also tend to forget is that no metaphor presupposes a complete match between the two items in question. Metaphors point at similarities which helps us grow our knowledge; but they rarely point at the differences, thus making us vulnerable to assumptions that are not necessarily correct.
An assumption, in turn, is the space in our knowledge network that contains our Unknown Knowns – the things that we don’t know that we are actually thinking; our autopilot if you will. The great benefit of being in this space is that we are very effective – we don’t need to think about things, we just need to do them. Driving a car, riding a bicycle, making eggs – all this mundane stuff falls squarely in the unknown knowns domain (for someone who knows how to do them of course). But as metaphors become engraved in the unknown knowns domain, they become dangerous – they shape our thinking and behavior without us realizing it; they make us too quick to reach conclusions and make decisions; and they make us believe things that we should be questioning instead.
What’s wrong with ‘It’s a numbers game’
So what does saying ‘It’s a numbers game’ imply? Clearly the essence of the adage is that it inspires persistent action and that’s not in any way wrong. Yes, we do miss 100% of the shots we don’t take and yes, we need to be persistent and try, and try, and try. This is a normal part of the growth process so we should definitely be embracing it. But there is more to achieving success than this and that’s the crux of the matter. We should be very careful not to allow this to close our perspectives to other, equally important aspects of our process.
For one thing, one can easily be tricked into thinking that ‘it’s a numbers game’ means it’s only the number of attempts that matter. Words open doors but they also close others. If we think it’s a numbers game we feel an almost natural disinclination to think it could be something else. It also feels very static, almost as if we are saying ‘This is all we’ve got, now we need to push it to world’.
I’m reminded for example of the saying that “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results” (as an aside, it seems that it was not Albert Einstein who said that but a “Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper article describing a meeting of Al-Anon” https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same/). Repetition is good – we do need to keep pushing. The thing is, we need not push with the same thing and in the same direction. The benefits of variety in both physical training, acquiring knowledge, and developing soft skills are well studied. We need to mix things up a bit as the straight line is not always the best way to get from A to B; just like when training for a marathon you don’t only do mindless 20km runs. With pretty much anything else you are trying to learn you are better off introducing a mixture of exercises.
And finally, but definitely not the least important reason to suggest that we need a better metaphor, there is no hint whatsoever to suggest that how people receive our message is important; there is no hint that we should be listening to people and receiving feedback. What ‘this is a numbers game’ implies instead is that all that matters is forcing our way through by means of, well, numbers. There is strength in numbers, absolutely. But there are other things that provide strength as well and we should remain open to them.
Let’s start calling it a ‘Learners’ game’
What I suggest instead is that we use a metaphor that much better encapsulates the spirit of what we are trying to do here. What if we call it ‘A learners’ game’ instead for example? It feels less punchy, I know, but it is still short and easy to remember, and more importantly, it accomplishes something “A numbers game” doesn’t – expands our horizons.
For one thing, making the learning perspective salient doesn’t rob ‘it’s a numbers game’ of its emphasis on repetition. Learning, at the end of the day, is a matter of forming and strengthening neural networks in your brain; a matter making neurons fire together much more easily and efficiently. Broadly speaking, there would be two ways of doing that: either a very powerful stimulus that elicits a strong reaction so you form a vivid memory; or through repetition. Repetition breeds success when it comes to forming neural networks, hence skills and knowledge.
On top of that, the focus on learning makes very explicit that you cannot simply go ahead with what you have. Instead, one needs to try different approaches, vary the activity and the intensity, and crucially – be open to receiving information back. And while ‘a numbers game’ says nothing about the feedback loop from your actions, to people’s reaction, to your reflection on them, learning makes this very clear. At the end of the day, very few of us learn something on their own, and it is a very good practice to have a coach to guide you in the process. No athlete trains on their own – why would you?
What all of does is to open avenues for exploring multiple options. Unlike the focus on repeating the same thing at scale, the learner’s approach is much more likely to be open to experiences and to trying new things and approaches. And in the process something remarkable is likely to happen – one starts to develop an interest in the topic and, subsequently, to stretch oneself. From this stretching, at the end of the road, comes improvement and growth in scale and scope, and from that comes success.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!