Life is Like a Game of Football — The Second Half

(Young) children being creative whilst playing football, as a fitting reference to the theme of the talk - namely how children represent life, and life is about creativity.

Or why Stephen Hawkings was wrong, Ronaldo is necessarily arrogant, and reaching for stars means you might reach them.

In the previous piece I analogised the typical game of football with Life. Let’s not be mistaken: Life is not a game; games are simple compared to the mighty complexity of just a single human being. But the creativity and unknowns of the world cup final does through a certain lens produce some practical takeaways about how one should conduct themselves if they want to succeed in achieving their ambitions.

Contrary to the conventional and very popular position, goals and a desire to ‘win’ is not bad and immoral. Details matter — that is obvious. But more important is the fact that we are problem solving beings. If we’re not working on a problem that is some way resulting in advancement, we’re not OK. Meaning is not the product of material wealth, a state of presence, or winning when the other person loses and such like; it’s an emergent state fundamentally dependant on our engagement with life hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year. The simple definition is that meaning is something that arises from working on interesting problems — ‘interesting’ being a  subjective term.

Confidence is another important ingredient — to an individual’s yearn for meaning and joy and purpose, and in all sport. In football (again, let’s use the typical events of the highest end of the game), when a academy graduate first takes to the field with the professionals — with the veterans, the £200,000-a-week strikers, the World’s Most Expensive Defender — and does so in front of the passionate, paying fans with great expectations, rarely is it obvious to outsiders why he deserves his spot. He might lose the ball a few times or not try anything even remotely progressive through fear of embarrassment, or because for some reason, “he doesn’t know how to.” The whole debut event is mysteriously stupefying to the kid.

But it isn’t a mystery. Once in a red moon you get a players oozing so much confidence (think Cristiano Ronaldo, or the young Wayne Rooney) that they can’t not produce a wondrous display. But the usual event is something like this: ‘young player is given ‘debut’ by manager in final ten mins of sealed win’. Already extremely nervous and not wanting to ‘mark’ the event with a silly mistake or some such, the young player comes on and looks no better than your average Sunday Leaguer: they hold the ball for a second at most before passing, or they hide — and frankly, they don’t look all that impressive.

Rarely do the debutants look impressive. But surely they must be, because against all the odds they’ve made the first team of Manchester United, Barcelona, or Juventus. There must be something special there. But where is it?

It’s being shunted out by nerves and a lack of fuel — namely confidence. Most professional sportspeople will tell you that the nerves never go away; what they often miss is that it’s confidence that changes everything. It’s more powerful than nerves. It’s an enabler. The great managers know this; it’s why they give youngens their debuts as several-minute displays: a full game is long enough to contain at least one event that could go wrong and create a long-lasting hindrance on the player’s confidence. Given that confidence is so critical, it’s no wonder they’re so protective of it.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘confidence’? And how does it apply to life? Consider another example from the football world: strikers going through a goal drought. Head down, hesitant to shoot, missing tap-ins, unable to hold up the ball, not stepping up come penalty time — they’re displaying the classic signs. Some people say he never had it, others that it won’t be long before it’s back, and yet others say he’s past it. More often than not, a couple of weeks go by and they’re once again firing on all cylinders. And more often than not what happened was a dip in confidence that led to less goals being scored, resulting in a steady uptick of problem-reinforcing criticism from the press and other surrounding agents about ‘droughts’ and ‘confidence’. Note that it’s rare to see the very best go through such spells — which is probably why we call them the best; confidence is that important.

In some ways it’s hard to pin down a definition of confidence. Is it a real thing? Why does it come and go? If it can be bottled, what’s the formula? We might recognise it in a player as ‘arrogance’ or even nastiness (think Luis Suarez) or inexhaustible energy (Ji Sung Park). It’s what happens for at least the next 10 minutes after a player scores a goal or creates a magnificent display of skill that wows the crowd, or some such. It’s the post match interview with Cristiano Ronaldo where he tells everyone that he wants to be the best in the world and he will do all he can to make the happen. Looking for a justification of the confidence — some technical explanation, rational underpinning, the source — is futile. At the very least, it’s an inherently dissatisfying pursuit.

We may also be talking about confidence when we talk about momentum. Why one approach — to problem-solving, learning, life, or whatever else — works for me and not for you is less about the details and more about because I believe in it: I start doing something that believe in, which gives me confidence, and I gain a momentum about the way I move, and it’s a flywheel effect. This is why interest is the greatest proxy, but that’s another conversation.

The simpler definition is just ‘bold belief in oneself’. And the more unjustified it is, the more sizable its effect. The fact is that we don’t know what we are capable of. If everyone had to be qualified to do special things, serious thought pre-showtime would be a necessity — and Dylan had something to say about that.

If I think hard about my footballing ability relative to others’ involved in this coming Sunday’s Class of 2006 reunion ‘friendly’, and secondly, the probabilities regarding not only my team’s chances of victory but how I might do something truly humiliating, well, it’s highly probable that I am sick on that day. Of course, I could think all this through and still have the delusion that I’m going to skill up the whole team, multiple times, and leave everyone with the impression that all these years I should have up there on the Ballon D’or podium with Ronaldo and Messi. The usual thought however is exactly or resemblant of the former, and I am unsurprisingly always not feeling too good come such showtimes. I am the master persuader when it comes to my own actions.1

If qualifications were always a necessity there would be no Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Ford, Franklin, Edison, or anyone else who had a dream and went to work and succeeded. Likewise if they knew how hard it would be — all the fight, setbacks, problems; all the hassle, I wouldn’t have even started on this piece if justification in the form of qualifications and/or strong reasons were prerequisites. No. I started because I wanted to — that is, I was interested in doing so — and because I knew I would start and finish, and it’d be worth publishing, and many people would read it, and so forth. Confidence, warranted or not with regards to external opinions or self-justifications, is pivotal to getting the job done.

We don’t know what we’re capable of. Personal narrative is everything; the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, what our purpose is, how we’re supposed to act, why we ought to do this and that, are in fact what make us human. When we turn ourselves to something high, something hard, something we’re by definition unqualified to do, and we tell ourselves and others that we’re going to succeed, we increase our chances of success. Those reluctant to lie should heed the advice of Weinstein, or Tyler Cowen, or follow the example set by all great sportspeople, and many greats from bygone eras — namely that by setting the bar higher than we’ve ever reacher we create a target, some higher state to work towards, something to live up to, which ultimately brings out our best. It’s how we tap into potential. It’s the process of creativity. It’s how progress is made.

We are problem-solving beings. We are organisms that grow through response to stressors. We are masters of adaptation. Our ability to conquer the unknown, solve original problems, exceed expectations, overcome insurmountable odds, to do more than we are meant to, is what makes us special.

Hawkings was wrong. The nihilists are wrong. The pessimists are wrong. The philosophies of these agents, being primarily about just getting by — because of either responsiblity or lack of alternatives — are anti-progress, anti-innovation, not pertaining to reality, and depressing. If our African ancestors never had delusional ideas about possibility, they’d have never rode the waves or ventured into unchartered territory — and we’d never be here. But of course, delusional, our ancestors were not. Just like the roles previously played by religion, empiricism and inductivism, they were functional, enabling, and pro-life. They made possible his very moment. And in so doing, taught us all fundamental truths about possibility, creativity, knowledge, and meaning.

People like to hate on Ronaldo, McGregor and Djokovic for their displays of arrogance and other such antics. What missing from the criticism is that they do what they do in order to bring out their best — the known best and the unknown. It’s why we watch them; we tune in because they’re the best and because they’re entertaining, which is made possible because of the audacious standards to which they hold themselves. If Messi had the arrogance of Ronaldo — the unavoidably attention-grabbing charisma, combined with majestic self-possession and so much confidence that it turns people off  — as consistently as Ronaldo, there’d be no question about who the best in the world is. From day one Ronaldo knew — and because he knew, it happened.

Life, you see, happens not to you but for you.

  1. Incidentally, this is why the question of whether we have Free Will is a conclusive yes.

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