Winning at Both the Inner and Outer Game of Success
Even if you don’t quite know what it is, you know that you want it.
All your life you’ve been trained to equate the idea of “success” with an absolute positive. I mean, isn’t the opposite of success supposed to be failure?
Who wants that?
A War or a Game?
So much of how we typically define success comes from a fundamental perspective that sees life as more like a war, a climb, or some sort of obstacle course that must be overcome.
Achievement is seen in terms of how one stands in relation to others. You win the war if the other side loses. You get to the top before others do, and there’s only so much room at the top. You secure as many resources as you can for yourself, because if you don’t someone else will take them first and you will lose out.
But what if we adopted a perspective that says life is a game, and then we defined “success” as the idea that one enjoys playing the game?
What if “great success” meant that one eventually came to the end of their life feeling like it was all a well-played game, and fully ready for the end of it?
What if life wasn’t seen as a war, or a climb, or any sort of achievement beyond the sheer joy of playing the game?
What if we defined success as the idea that one enjoys playing the game of life?
Doesn’t winning mean something different in a war versus a game? Unless you’re a sociopath, you don’t enjoy the process of war; you only care about the final achievement. Success in war means making sure the opponent loses.
While there certainly are many games of competition, as well as games of cooperation, the reason you play a game is for the joy of playing it. Someone may have to lose, but you don’t play to make the other party lose. You play to win, and hope everyone has fun and wants to do it again some other time. And you know that sometimes you’ll win and sometimes your friends will, and it’s all good fun and games.
This is a fundamental part of how you create a successful life; you define the context of success to be more a part of playing a fun game than fighting a “winner take all” war.
But by itself, that’s not enough. You must also consider the different aspects of your game play, your Inner and Outer game.
What Are the Inner and Outer Games?
An effective way of considering what constitutes good game play within this game called “A Human Life” that we’re all playing together, is that there is both the solo level of the game and the group level of the game.
We are individuals, but we are individuals who exist within relationship. Relationship to other people, to other life forms, to the planet itself and all that is on it. In order to truly succeed, we must succeed in both our individual game within ourselves and in the externally focused relational game, the Outer Game.
So much of how success is normally defined is 100% focused on the Outer Game. Even when people think they’re talking about the Inner Game (which is usually referred to as inner work or self-improvement) they typically focus on aspects that are really the Outer Game.
For example, is leadership an Inner Game or Outer Game concept?
Many may think it is the Inner Game, because it relates to personal qualities. But leadership is moot if there is no one to lead. It is therefore focused on one’s relationship to others. It is Outer Game.
But if we only consider success to be about how we relate to others, everything becomes Outer Game. There is no concept of winning that is not winning in relation to others, even if we stop trying to win over others. Even if our idea of success is helping others win, it is still an Outer Game aspect of success.
The Inner Game of Success
Inner game success is about how you feel about yourself. It’s about being able to look in the mirror, say “I love you,” and mean it. It’s about living the experience of your intrinsic value and not feeling like you need to do anything to prove your worth.
And isn’t that the truth about who we are? Aren’t we born worthy and deserving of happiness? Aren’t the best things in life things we couldn’t possibly do anything to earn?
How do you earn the way the warmth of the sun feels on your skin? How do you earn the joy of seeing a beautiful sunset? How do you earn the feeling of being near the ocean or in a forest? How do you earn the way it lifts your heart when you see a baby smile?
There is so much that we humans have manufactured, so much that is truly useful and delightful, that we forget that the very best things were not manufactured by anyone. Life is a gift, and our only true job is to learn to unwrap that gift.
That’s what it means to win at your Inner Game. You learn to allow in all the good you deserve, because you know that you deserve it.
Over the last few years I’ve done a considerable amount of work with people from families who have experienced generational persecution that has distorted their personal identity. They have been taught that no matter how hard they work, they will never truly deserve happiness. They believe that even if things are good for a while, they are sure to turn bad any day now. They are convinced that they are fundamentally unworthy and inadequate.
Essentially, they have been taught to lose at the Inner Game of success.
Now there are lots of reasons for this training that I won’t get into here. But regardless of why it happened, the result is that there are a lot of people walking around out there who suck at the Inner Game. And that causes them to have a distorted relationship to their Outer Game.
When you lack the ability to experience your intrinsic value, you live off-center. You lose the ability to even value, appreciate or enjoy things like a sunset or a walk in the forest.
There are a lot of people who suffer from an inability to appreciate anything that hasn’t been earned through suffering and sacrifice or through beating someone else to it. And that is why they are insatiable in their pursuit of Outer Game accomplishments.
No matter how much money they have, they want more. No matter how much power they have, they want more. No matter how much fame they have, they want more. No matter what they have, they still feel vulnerable, unsafe, and pursue more of whatever they think will bring security.
You see, when your Inner Game is off, you feel fundamentally insecure. It’s as if the other shoe is always just waiting to drop. No matter what you have, you are always in jeopardy of losing it. That makes you extremely vulnerable to manipulation by others, and it also leads you to have an insatiable lust for Outer Game achievements to compensate.
Consider the young person just entering the world of work and determined to be a millionaire by the time they’re 30. Why such an arbitrary goal? Because it sounds like success, doesn’t it? Who could argue with the fact that they are doing better than those around them when it comes to outer success?
Would the life they need to live in their 20s in order to accomplish this arbitrary goal be one of healthy emotional development, fulfillment, happiness, and appreciation of the unearned blessings of life? Unlikely.
Would they even achieve the goal? Possible, but also unlikely. Typically, such people are driven to this goal by a fear of poverty or low social standing. This is their goal because being a millionaire at 30 indicates social value and esteem to them, and they don’t fundamentally have healthy self-esteem. So they have to find affirmation outside themselves.
When the source of a person’s motivation is low self-esteem, it’s a lot harder for them to achieve their goals. There are a number of reasons for that, some analytically reasonable and others a bit more spiritual in nature, but whatever the reason, success tends to elude those who don’t feel like they actually deserve it.
As another example of what being off balance in the Inner Game looks like, consider the people most prominent in politics. You’ll see the most outrageous decisions being made, such as raising taxes on those making less than $75,000 per year while cutting taxes on billionaires, and you’ll think, “But why would so many of them vote for that?”
Some do it because they’re a tad sociopathic, but others are good people who are simply driven by fear. They are afraid of being primaried by those billionaires, so they legislate for the good of those who keep them in power, not those they are supposed to serve. When the voter is utterly swayed by propaganda, those who pay for the propaganda become your real constituency, not the voters themselves.
Those politicians value power because they think that is the source of their security. They have sacrificed a lot to attain great power, but they still don’t feel secure. Many seek to grow their power further, but others simply fear the loss of the power they now have. They are therefore very easily manipulated into becoming someone they can only bear to see in the mirror if they’ve had a shot of booze first.
I could continue giving different examples like this, but for the sake of brevity I’ll ask you to consider for yourself other examples you’ve seen in your own experience of life. What have you seen happens to people when they lose sight of their own intrinsic value and start feeling like the only value they have is what they can establish to others?
What happens to people when they lose sight of their intrinsic value?
No one wants to be cast out of the community. No one wants to be the loser, the one with little value, the one who isn’t smart enough, rich enough, good looking enough, to have value to the community.
As soon you start playing the game where the value a human has is based on those types of things, you can’t help but to be fundamentally insecure yourself.
I mean, if intelligence is what makes a person more valuable to the community, what happens when you are the dumbest person in the room? No matter how smart you are, you will sometimes encounter someone who is smarter, and what if they aren’t polite about it? I’ve met a lot of smart people who will twist themselves into knots in order to avoid any confusion about their intellectual superiority; they are so easily manipulated by that fear.
Getting your Inner Game on point comes down to healing those dysfunctional belief patterns that say you’re not enough just as you are. It’s about knowing that your value does not result from your being more “something” than others. Letting go of the belief that your only value comes from what you do, have or know, not from who you are, is the only path to freedom and true security.
Did you know that your presence has value?
If I could spend an afternoon sitting beside you silently in a forest, I would end the encounter in deep appreciation of you.
I don’t have to know anything about you to know that you embody something quite perfect, quite beautiful, quite unique and precious in this world. Now this is a spiritually sourced belief, but I have found it to be born out in experience without exception.
I invite you to experiment with this idea yourself. Can you spend an afternoon sitting silently with yourself in a forest? Or in a cafe? Or walking the streets of whatever city or town you live in? Can you be silently with yourself and experience yourself with appreciation?
If you can, then you have a strong center for winning within your Inner Game. And this strength will set you up to make it possible that you might also win in your Outer Game.
The Outer Game of Success
Once you’ve got your Inner Game on track, you want to make sure your Outer Game is popping too. That comes down to knowing how to achieve your goals in the world. How do you get to do the things you want to do and have the things you want to have, when it all has to come to you through other people?
So much of this comes down to what you either learn indirectly growing up in your family or what you learn through study from outside your family. Some families hold this very practical economic knowledge, and some don’t.
Again, much of my work has focused on helping people of color and others who come from families that have faced persecution due to ethnicity, religion, class, race, etc. A common aspect of this persecution is often that access to knowledge is difficult or even forbidden.
For example, it was once illegal to teach a black person in America to read. Under Jim Crow, even when blacks did create successful businesses, they were often the target of arson or their owners the victims of lynchings. (Read up on the destruction of what was called Black Wall Street in the 1920s for more on this.)
Can you see how unlikely it would be for members of such a community to be able to learn from their parents how to start or run a successful business?
And what of those whose fore-parents were indentured servants? Or refugees who had once been farmers now arriving in a place with only huge factory farms? Or anyone whose family simply never had enough money to be able to learn how to manage it?
And I’m not only talking about being put to work in the family business, which helps a great deal, of course. But even just living in a household that is entrepreneurial and financially stable teaches you things that are important for managing a business and managing money successfully. Those who come from families that lack that knowledge, for whatever the reason, simply must learn those things someplace else if they are to know them.
Which brings me to the critical importance of being a self-directed learner.
If you didn’t come from a family that was financially successful, then you are going to have to learn from people who have access to that information. I won’t get into whether you should hire someone to teach you or simply cobble together your own syllabus from information freely available to you (though as a business consultant I definitely have a bias on the matter), but one way or the other, learn what you don’t know.
- Apply yourself to the study of how the economy works, what jobs exist and are growing, what different business revenue models there are.
- Once you understand what the world is offering to pay for, find the overlap between that and the activities and ways of thinking/relating that delight you.
- Then develop the skills needed to do that work well.
Connect with a community of others who are also learning these things, doing these things, mastering these subjects. Learn and grow with others, and remember always that it’s supposed to be a game. Meaning, you’re supposed to actually enjoy the process of mastering the skills needed to achieve your goals.
Delivering your gifts to this world in a way the world is ready to receive them takes effort and skill. It’s a game, but it’s a bit more like Bridge than Chutes and Ladders.
Easy games are great for kids, because they have so much to learn, and really you just want to engage them and teach them social skills through the game play. As adults, we are ready for a bigger game. Don’t be afraid of losing. Draw upon the strength coming from your well-played Inner Game to know that you are indeed up to the challenge and ready to make this a much more juicy game.
Which brings me to the way that the Inner and Outer Games work together to ensure that when you come to the end of your game play, you can die in peace, knowing you played a really good game and had a great life doing it. True Success.
Integrating Both Games for the Win
We can know we’re winning at the Outer Game when we can answer the question: “Was it worth it?” with, “Yes.”
Was what worth it?
Were the hours you spent working on goal X worth it once you achieved that goal? Were the ways you affected other people along the way worth what you accomplished because of it? Did you get what you were really after? Was it all worth it?
We exist within relationship. We naturally care what others think about us, and when we come from a strong center of self-worth, we can balance our desire to hold the esteem of others with our desire to live in a way we esteem ourselves. We can live with a moral compass, and know that the decisions we make now will come without future regrets. We also feel secure in our place within the community.
There is a confidence in that. And that confidence allows us to take risks that pay off with tremendous accomplishment.
You want to make a lot of money in business?
Then feel like that achievement is Divinely inspired. Feel like you are being led to inevitable success that is not just in your best interests, but in the best interests of the community.
When you wake up, wake up knowing that this is going to be a great day. Know that you are going to move through this world with perfect timing and be led to encounter all the perfect people, places and things for what you need next.
You are going to open the right emails at the right moment. You’re going to read emails you wouldn’t normally open, that you don’t even know how they got your email address, and what you read there is going to lead you down a path that opens up your next great adventure.
Or you’re going to feel unwell, so not go into work that day. But then at some point you’ll feel like you just have to get out of the house, so you’ll go for a walk and stop in a cafe to get some hot chicken soup. Someone at a nearby table will strike up a conversation with you, and you’ll discover they are just launching a startup solving a problem that is dear to you, a startup that happens to need your exact skill set. And off you go.
When you are secure in your intrinsic value, knowing that you are an asset to your community no matter what you do or don’t do, that frees up your creativity. It opens you to the genius inspirations that are always flowing to you, but that you aren’t always tuning in to receive.
The better you feel about yourself, the more you allow in creative inspiration.
Living a life that is guided by inspired action is the surest way to achieve accomplishments that mean something to you and that really make a positive difference for others too. I believe in the fundamental goodness of people, and that we are all happiest when we experience ourselves uplifting others. But we don’t have access to that motivation and joy when we’re coming from a place of scarcity and fear.
So many people live their entire lives with such fundamental insecurity, that they actually think they are bad people. I’ve even heard a young man look at his 1 year old son and say the baby was bad like him, because he was bad like his father too. He actually believed that nonsense. I of course firmly corrected that fallacy immediately, but the point is that a lot of people are walking around out there never even willing to speak aloud what they really think about themselves.
No matter how much money a person is able to amass, how can they be called truly successful if they feel like they’re a bad person? If they are cut off from the love they naturally feel towards all life? If they are cut off from their appreciation of life itself, and only able to value what makes them feel more important than others, due to the false sense of security that brings?
So this is my invitation to you: Play your Inner Game in such a way that you are able to accept the reality of your intrinsic value. Then play your Outer Game in such a way that you develop the skills you need to share your uniqueness in a way that delights and benefits others.
Contribute who you naturally are to this world with both confidence and skill, and you will be a joyful force of good moving through this world. You will be successful.
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Indigo Ocean Dutton, MA is a consultant at Awaken Business Consulting and the founder of The Winning Start programs helping people of color win at both the Inner and Outer Games of life through step-by-step training in both. She is also the author of Being Bliss and Micro Habits for Major Happiness, has served on the Board of Directors of several non-profits, helped build a land trust community for poor native Hawaiians, and taught meditation to incarcerated teenagers. Indigo’s Outer Game comes down to supporting joy and harmony within a world of ever increasing diversity.