Playbook: Strategy for Mental Health

Mamba Mentality

The late and great Kobe Bryant once said, “We can always kind of be average and do what’s normal. I’m not in this to do what’s normal.” Within those words the ‘Mamba Mentality’ he birthed still lives vividly in our minds. Similarly, the same player he modeled his career after, Micahel Jordan, had an analogous outlook on work ethic, saying, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” And it’s not just world-class athletes that have this demeanor of competitiveness: look at entrepreneurial moguls like Elon Musk who apparently works 120 hour work weeks, or Bill Gates who never took a day off in his twenties to start Microsoft. They wanted to win and were subsequently rewarded for their efforts. This makes sense to us, and we admire those who go the lengths to grind, compete, and outright win against their competition. 

Intrinsically, I think everyone is at least a little competitive. Whether it’s school, sports, or, especially, family game night, our minds are constantly racing on how we can get a leg up on everyone else. We are consciously driven by this idea of success as we spend that extra hour late at night studying trying to ace our next test, or getting extra reps in at the gym in order to bolster our athletic performance. Our motivation is largely a proponent of a desire to win, to succeed at what we do. Yet, I’ve recently noticed while these previous forms of competitiveness are generally accepted as fundamental truths, we fail to apply the same logic to our well-being and mental health. It seems random to control something so ever-fluctuating like our mental health, and we, therefore, go about our days without giving it much thought or obsessing about how it can be improved. We would never think of ‘winning’ at mental health, but what I’m proposing is that we take the measures we go to succeed in the other areas of our lives and apply them to our own psychological contentment. We should be making conscious efforts to better ourselves rather than freestyling our actions blindly hoping they’ll make us feel better. We need to develop a strategy: a decisive course of actions that have been thoroughly thought out with the intention of giving us a unique advantage. In the following article, I’ll break down what goes into a strategy, and how we can accomplish goals as ambitious as long-term happiness with some detailed planning and careful execution. 

Playing to Win

A strategy is nothing but a collection of decisive actions that will be completed. One thing to note is that there is no perfect template for what will exactly go into a strategy, rather there is only a broad and loose guideline that I can try to walk you through. Much of these decisions and questions you will have to answer yourself, and there’s the potential that on the first time the strategy might not be what you envisioned. That’s ok; not succeeding the first time is perfectly natural and will give you valuable experience to then recalibrate your strategy. 

The following questions come from A.J. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble who broke down into pieces what comprises a strategy. For more information, consult his book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. I will briefly look to summarize some of his points and give my own personal insights as it pertains to mental health. 

  1. What is your winning aspiration?

“Aspirations are statements about the ideal future.” Before any tangible action can be taken, consider the end goal that will set this entire strategy’s path moving forward. A perfectly executed strategy is pointless without the correct aspiration. What is it that you truly want? Aspirations are not merely quantitative measurements or broad conclusions. For example, an aspiration is not “to lose 10 pounds” or “to eat healthier.” Sure those are elements and steps toward what an aspiration is, but it fails to capture the overarching intention. Aspirations are a deeper idea of what the strategy is meant to achieve, such as “to feel better about me,” or “to feel more confident physically.” While this distinction seems trivial, it ensures that you are able to measure your results in a way that is relevant to your overall purpose. Aim high, and you’ll subsequently be more likely to reach greater heights.

  1. Where will you play?

While this question seems ambiguous, it could be rephrased to, “through what mediums are you going to achieve your goals?” For example, if your aspiration is to get in shape, then where you ‘play’ would be the gym or the track. Choosing where you will be able to generate your advantage is a crucial aspect of strategy that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many of us like to keep our options open for as long as possible, delegating our time to multiple activities. While having an open mind and diversifying our habits is undoubtedly the spice of life, there are times it can jumble our priorities. To elaborate further, take for example a self-care routine. You might be trying a myriad of self-betterment activities like meditation, art, journaling, exercise, etc. which are all amazing to do. Yet, there are bound to be a select few that better fit your needs and would be optimal if you were to devote more time to them. By trying to play everywhere you end up playing nowhere. 

  1. How will you win?

Once you’ve chosen your aspirations and where you will play, now comes the most important step: how will you win. Finding the best way to capitalize on ‘where you will play’ is a pivotal notion to consider. The wording of this is again a little misleading, as we’re not trying to mediate or journal in a way that is better than everyone else, rather we’re trying to win against ourselves.  The largest mistake that arises is when we try to force ‘rules’ on something that doesn’t actually exist. For example, some people might think that the meditation apps online are cheesy, or because they’ve labeled themselves as uncreative that journaling or drawing is out of their capabilities. But none of these statements are true, in fact, they are harmful if they stop you from doing what is most optimal. If it’s objectively the best choice despite our preconceived biases, then why don’t we do it? It sounds like common sense, but try and look for the moments where you are self-imposing arbitrary rules and you will be surprised how naturally these judgements come up. When we start putting constraints on what is possible, we limit our growth.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

“And that is the single most crucial dimension of a company’s aspiration: a company must play to win. To play merely to participate is self-defeating. It is a recipe for mediocrity. Winning is what matters—and it is the ultimate criterion of a successful strategy” That quote comes verbatim from A.J. Lafley. It’s clear that his business-oriented mindset is the reason for P&G’s success. While I disagree that a results-based analysis for everything is absolute, I can’t deny there are fundamental truths that come with success. I am a firm believer that winning isn’t everything, but I do think that putting intention into something and having positive results as a byproduct can’t hurt. If there’s a way we can make slight optimizations in our lives, why don’t we? That may sound over-simplified, and I do admit it is a large generalization to make that discounts prevailing circumstances, but there’s no harm in creating a strategy to improve our current situations. Play to win, and see how far that takes you.