All In

We say we are “all in,” but do we mean it?


In 1519, the explorer Hernando Cortes scuttled his ships off the coast of Mexico.  He did it to ensure that, for his expedition in the new world, retreat would be extremely difficult.  The only way through was forward.

What does it really mean to be “all in?”

I think that’s a question all of us have to wrestle with at some point in life.  For sure, a big part of being a strategist is calculating the risks…knowing the outs in a situation.

But for those among us who only focus on the outs, the outs become the ends.

I can recall a management team focused on constantly ensuring their outs.  The default approach to management was to pad.  Pad the numbers, pad deadlines, pad assertions in conversations. In the spirit of Jim Collins’ book Great by Choice (and I’ll save a salvo for anecdotalists like Collins to be delivered another day), the management team took the case study of a climbing team on Everest packing extra oxygen to ensure two summit tries–a real life and death situation–and applied it to everyday management. There were conversations on “extra oxygen” that related to padding of cost estimates, deadlines, etc. It was, like it probably is in your organization, art. The “outs” became the ends, because when everybody is padding their estimates, nobody is engaging on the truth.

The issue with that anecdote is that “extra oxygen” for one person is, quite literally, “sandbagging” to another.  If I only focus on my extra padding, I never actually get to the point where I can execute a real thrust.  Imagine our friend Cortes, sword in hand and wrapped in layers of padding.

He couldn’t win a fight that way, and neither can you.

Which brings me back to my question…  What does it really mean to be “all in?”

On the sports field, you can tell the ones that are all in by their actions.  Athletes who are all in know one thing:  Somebody, somewhere is working hard, possibly harder than them.  Athletes who are all in burn their figurative ships every. single. day.  They train until they hurt, and they play hurt.

On the football field, I never saw a truly great player…one who was all in…who didn’t play with significant injury.  That went for my best friend the kicker as much as it went for the most pounded on defensive tackle on the field.

While sports metaphors are perhaps a bit overplayed, I think they provide a picture of “all in” that is at its purest.  The athlete lives a life within a life.  From the moment a great competitor achieves greatness, her skills are deteriorating.  Time is undefeated. Athletes know that their time is limited.  They know that their skill will go away one day, and that they will be left to remember them.  So, elite athletes are simply better at role modeling “all in.”

Sure, it’s sometimes to an extreme… NFL Safety Ronnie Lott famously chose to have the tip of his finger amputated to preserve his opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.  That’s all in. I’ve seen athletes play with broken bones, torn ligaments, twisted joints, and crushed hands.  Why?  Because time is running out.

And that, my friends, may be the best lesson of all on being “all in.”  At some point, time runs out on all of us.  Whether we are serving a client, or playing in the Super Bowl, we know that time is undefeated. Being all in means having the grace and fortitude to suck the marrow out of our skills.

My favorite anecdote actually comes from Hollywood.  In the movie Rocky, the titular character gets a shot at the best fighter in the world while dealing with his own decline from never-really-got-there.  In the midst of the fight, Rocky is beaten, bloodied, and blind from the swelling on his eye.  Sitting in his corner, he utters a famous and altogether meaningful plea to his trainer…

“I can’t see nothing.  Gotta open my eye.  Cut me, Mick.”

Faced with the ravages of time and a shot at going the distance (not winning, mind you) with the champ, Rocky burned his ships.  He asked his trainer to demolish his face by cutting it with a razor to relieve the swelling…for one more chance.

Most of us will never be faced with a choice like that…The choice to seek the knife or the needle just to perform one last time.  But we do face choices as to how hard we play. We do demonstrate how badly we want to get what we can from our skills.

What does “all in” really mean in a professional setting?  I can’t say for you.  I can say that, for me it means making the most of what you have, and not letting the “outs” dominate the “ends.”

I’d love your thoughts on this one.




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