I had a rather uneventful Junior College wrestling career. Uneventful in terms of my record, but not the experience. Our team was second in the nation, and one of my teammates, Tom, was a national champ. Most practice sessions with him were an education in humility for me, but one lesson endured, and I’m still learning it. The scramble.
As with many difficult endeavors, it takes years to become a skilled wrestler. I started late, so I often felt outmatched and had a tendency to play defense. I wanted to maintain control or, more accurately, prevent the scrambles for control. Playing defense in those situations was a way of playing not to lose. A way of playing small.
Tom was a master of the scramble: those instances where neither wrestler has the advantage. In fact, he’d ask team members to put him in predicaments that they didn’t think he could extricate himself from, and I never saw him fail to escape and reverse the advantage. To do so, he had to find a way to move from being controlled to being in control. The space between those two states is called the scramble. It’s those moments where control is up for grabs or “catch as catch can.”
This scramble element also applies to individual and organizational change. In fact, Kurt Lewin, one of the forerunners of Social Science in the 1940’s, developed a 3 stage change process that consists of an element similar to the scramble. The stages are:
1. Unfreezing — dismantling the current mindset
2. Change occurs — transition, discomfort and uncertainty ←The Scramble
3. Refreezing — the new mindset is crystalized and gradually becomes ingrained.
The scramble is easier to understand visually than it is to explain on the page. It looks like this on a wrestling mat:
Or, if you’re having trouble figuring out that tangle of arms and legs, it looks like this when I’m trying to figure out how to use “screen record” for this blog post (I gave up):
The important thing to note about the scramble is that while it’s the most risky element of the wrestling match, it’s also where most of the scoring opportunities arise.
This is at the heart of my reflection on the wrestling experience: playing defense — or playing not to lose — is a losing strategy in the scramble. When it’s “up for grabs,” and your focus is on not getting grabbed, it’s like a third opponent has entered the match. Yourself.
The scramble can be exhilarating if you’re playing offense. If you’re playing defense, it’s frustrating and stressful.
In our project-driven world, the scramble is key leverage for success, not just in the projects we undertake, but in the entirety of our careers.
- That promotion you’re vying for will involve learning new skills and behaviors. The scramble is in letting go of the old skills and behaviors and grabbing onto the new. You can’t afford the defensive posture, “I’m in over my head.”
- The point in the sales meeting where you look the prospect in the eye and politely ask them to buy is when the scramble begins. It’s tempting to play defense and avoid the “no” instead of going for the “yes.”
- The important presentation you’re preparing for will cause you to scramble in order to get from the shell of an idea to the kernel. If you doubt yourself, you may settle for “good enough” instead of compelling and creative.
When I began preparing this blog post, I had an idea in mind. Once I began putting the pieces together a number of loose ends and inconclusive ideas began to take shape, and I began to lose control. There comes a point when I’m struggling to wrestle the content into something clear and meaningful, but the words don’t come, or they splash onto the page in a morass of incoherence. If I play not to lose, if I try to minimize the scramble, I risk the depth of that original idea.
In fact, virtually any new learning experience has this unfreeze — change — refreeze element to it. In the middle, as the unfamiliarity and discomfort arises so does the scramble. If we choose to play small and go on the defense we allow a second opponent to enter the fray — our own self doubt or insecurities.
It’s in the scramble that we risk playing small and scaling back in order to just plow through to completion. To settle for the shell of an idea rather than the kernel. Trying not to create something substandard is a defensive posture of playing not to lose.
The secret to playing to win in the scramble is that while it helps to have the fundamentals down, the only way to prepare oneself for the scramble is to practice scrambling. Practice playing offense, not defense. If you can master the scramble, you’ll eventually learn to embrace it as an opportunity for growth.
Now more than ever, in order to thrive, we must learn to master the scramble. It’s not just about playing to win, it’s a way of flourishing on the path ahead.