Stop Playing with the Small Ball

These days I hear a lot about playing it Big, playing a big game, going big, being a big person. All of this sounds great. But how exactly do you do that? It sounds easy, but is it? I mean, if it was easy to play big, we’d do it all the time, wouldn’t we?

We’d take on bigger projects, think more creatively, and arrange our lives to experience more. We’d take more risks, be more bold and, as Nike says, we’d Just Do It!

We'd play with the big ball, not the small ball. 

The advantages of playing big seem so obvious. Then why do so many of us play small? Why do we hold back, avoid challenges, and make just enough money to get by?

You've heard this answer before: Fear.

Now don’t you feel better already? All you need to do is get rid of your fear and you’ll automatically start to play big. OK, that might be true, but how do we get rid of the fear?

We need to delve into this a little more deeply.

First of all, fear is a symptom of a belief, that is, fearful thoughts and beliefs lead to fearful feelings. And fearful feelings lead to playing it small.

Some common fearful core beliefs are: I’m not good enough/smart enough/attractive enough. He/she will reject me if I ask for that. I’ll be abandoned if I don’t do what they want. If I do that I’ll make a fool of myself. I can’t put it out there until it's perfect. The time isn’t right to do that project yet.

Sometimes we have to dig deeply to find these beliefs, but virtually every time you notice hesitation and fearful feelings, you’ll discover a fearful belief lurking not far underneath.

By the way, we like to be consistent with our beliefs. It’s very hard to think a fearful belief and then take a bold action. It just won’t compute. “I can’t do that,” is almost always followed by avoidance, and then a rationalization. 

I see this with clients all the time. They want to grow their business, and they understand there are certain things they need to do to make it happen, but they stop themselves over and over again because of their fearful beliefs. But they almost always think it’s something else that’s stopping them: “I didn’t have time, I need to study more first, that won’t work for me.”

What holds a fearful belief in place? Good question. I call it the “Cost-Payoff-Dynamic.” That is, when we experience a fearful belief and the accompanying feelings and avoidance, there’s both a cost and a payoff in play. 

The cost is pretty obvious, both externally and internally. We don’t get what we want, we make less money, we take a hit to our self-esteem, and we feel weak and powerless. These costs can be high, and they’re real.

Since the costs of fearful beliefs are so high, why don’t we change? Well, it’s because the payoff of holding onto a fearful belief is even greater. So the payoff wins out.

Most people don’t get this. “I can see the costs of my fearful beliefs. But I can’t see the payoff; what could I possibly be getting out of those beliefs? It doesn’t make sense.”

Well, yes it does, and it’s the key to why we not only hold onto, but are addicted to our fearful beliefs.

Here's how it works:

The payoff is that we get to stay comfortable and avoid the pain of discomfort. We hold onto the “small ball” because it feels familiar; it feels non-threatening, it feels safer.

Most of us learned, when we were young, that playing small was safer and that playing big was dangerous. We learned to play by the rules or get punished. Our ideas got shot down. Our excitement got suppressed. Our creativity was stifled. We learned to behave and be “normal.”

We were urged to study in safe fields and get a safe job and, well, just play it safe with that small ball. And many years later, when we’re all grown up, apparently having our act together, we still find we’re deathly afraid of taking risks, being creative and different, or saying the wrong thing.

OK, pretty sucky payoff, isn't it?

We keep believing these fearful beliefs because it’s easier and more comfortable. Of course we don’t play with the big ball. That’s dangerous. The small ball is so much safer! Yet we are paying a huge cost for playing it safe.

Think of all the plans, the dreams, the difference you were going to make, the business you were going to start, the book you were going to write. Well, that’s all on the shelf until… someday, maybe, when your circumstances change.

So, is it hopeless after all? Are we fated to play with the small ball forever? Let’s look at that payoff again. I have one more question:

Is that payoff real and is it worth it?

Look, if it were real, I can understand that you’d hold onto it. But is it true that if you play big that something terrible, something catastrophic will happen? Can you really know that?

I ask my clients, “If you follow up on that prospective client, what’s the worst that can happen? Will they hire a hit man to take you out? Not likely.” 

If you stopped playing small and started playing big, what is the worst that could happen? Isn’t it 95% imaginary? Isn’t it just a thought pattern you took on years ago to protect you from harm or rejection or failure? But how useful is that belief to you now? Isn’t holding onto it hurting you more than it’s protecting you?

When you look closely, there’s nothing there. The emperor has no clothes. Those thoughts and beliefs are not solid things. They barely exist. They are phantoms. 

If I told you that a werewolf would attack you if you took a risk, would you believe me? Of course not! So why would you believe you’d be hurt by some imaginary “them” if you took a risk and ran with the big ball? Who is “them” anyway?

Under this kind of scrutiny, the payoff is starting to look pretty flimsy, isn’t it? You may even realize that the payoff is a con-job. You’ve conned yourself. Playing it safe is not safe!

Nothing has really held you back from playing big. You always had the ability, you always had the talent, you always had what you needed. You can make it happen. And it’s OK if you make mistakes, start slow and do it imperfectly. That’s how people learn and grow.  

Isn’t it time to just pick up the big ball and stop playing with the small ball? What possibilities might open up for you if you stopped playing with the small ball? What projects might you take on? What would you stop avoiding? What dreams would you fulfill? What difference would you make?

Can you live without the small ball? No doubt about it. Just let it drop and move forward. How hard was that.

And, by the way, what happened to that fear?

Here’s a little exercise:

Go to a sporting goods store and buy a small ball, perhaps a lacrosse ball. It’s small and hard. And on it, in magic marker, write the words, SMALL BALL. Now keep that ball somewhere in your office or your home where you’ll see it all the time. It will remind you that the small ball is not you, it has no power over you; it’s just a false belief that has outworn its usefulness. Let it gather dust on the shelf until you don’t notice it anymore.