I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty much unbeatable at tic-tac-toe. Yup, if there were a tic-tac-toe hall of fame, they’d have to dedicate an entire wing to commemorate my active winning streak. After all, I haven’t lost a game in close to 30 years. And I know what you’re thinking, but even in this modern sports era, not once have I ever been convicted of doping or using performance enhancing drugs. Yes, there was that unfortunate incident at the Helsinki Championships when some say I should have been penalized for use of an improperly formed “x”, but I was eventually exonerated.
Realistically, outside of the mandatory game you must play with your son or daughter using the kids menu placemat, does anyone over the age of 12 really care about tic-tac-toe? If you’re like most people, at some point in your childhood, you realized that there were only a limited number of moves, even less strategy involved, and no real tactical planning required. In fact, if you’re like me, you sat down one day and actually went through all the options, discovered that all but the most obviously inane choices led to a tie and promptly declared, “This game is stupid.”
In general, the more simple the game, the less spectacular any possible outcome.
People rarely play games when there is no challenge, where there is no room for innovation and creativity, and when they already know the outcome. For as much as we hear that "winning is everything", winning really is nothing without overcoming adversity, without rising above yourself, and without feeling the rush of conquering a worthy opponent.
As I’m writing this article, LeBron James is close to winning an NBA championship with the Miami Heat. While I have no idea if James will win this year, I’m guessing that he will win eventually. However, completely aside from game scores, I have a much bigger prediction to make. While he may win a championship in Miami, he may never experience what it feels like to be a true champion.
What I don’t think he realizes is that by leaving Cleveland and joining an already powerful team, he eliminated many of the odds stacked against him, and effectively lowered the level of individual expectations on him. He saw the difficulty of the obstacles before him here, and like too many people in today’s world, instead of rising to the task, he chose to lower the bar.
Winning a professional championship in Cleveland has become the Mt. Everest of sports. But instead of finding a good Sherpa, hooking up another bottle of oxygen and climbing on, James chose to take on the less spectacular summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Had he faced the adversity and stuck it out here, he could have elevated his reputation and reward. Win a title in Cleveland, and they will name streets after you, win a title in Miami, and your jersey sales might get a temporary jump.
Unfortunately, his example is all but becoming the norm. Society today is filled with far too many cases where, when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we choose to lower the bar rather than raise the level of our determination. We try to limit the possibility of failure, not realizing that we’re providing only the opportunity for hollow victory.
I don’t get invited to deliver commencement speeches at graduations, but if I did, the message that I would have for those just starting life on their own would be this: I would rather try and fail spectacularly than succeed at living monotonously. And I’m not just talking about sports. Life is full of obstacles and opportunities, and many of them come with a hefty price tag of time and effort. Some may come with the possibility of humiliating defeat, but cowards won’t cure cancer, and quitters will never solve the problems of hunger and homelessness.
It doesn’t matter if your goal is financial gain, world-wide fame or intellectual glory. You will never experience that “Miracle on Ice” moment if you only stick to playing tic-tac-toe.