How to Avoid Getting Punched in the Mouth
Written by:Systems Thinking
Once upon a time, there was a boxer who’d rarely go for knockout blows in the early rounds.
He’d use superior head movements and footwork to wear down his opponents and then, later in the match, strike when they got tired.
That boxer’s name: Floyd Mayweather Jr.
He was the highest-paid athlete from 2010-2019, raking in $915 Million during that period—out-earning Cristiano Ronaldo ($800M), Leo Messi ($750M), and LeBron James ($680M).1
Even more impressive was that Mayweather went undefeated, 50-0, in his professional boxing career. Now, he’s unanimously regarded as the best boxer of our generation.
Fellow boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
But what happens if you rarely get punched in the mouth? (Something that Mayweather mastered.) He’d simply stick with his plan. His butter-that-earned-him-a-lot-of-bread: defense.
In the words of Mayweather, “It’s protect yourself at all times.”
Offense or Defense?
In this article, I’ll explore the optimal allocation of offense vs. defense in the game of life.
So, which one is more important?
Sports, war, and business are helpful frames of reference for this age-old question. To prime our discussion, let’s take a look at the high-level pros and cons of each:
|Gain ground||Exhaust energy||Reserve energy||Miss opportunity to be innovative and expand|
|Perception of strength: seen as courageous/ brave||Exhaust resources||Reserve resources -> Resilience: strength for a rainy day||Perception of weakness: seen as timid/ conservative|
|Offense as your best defense (opponent too busy defending to strike back)||Vulnerable to counterattack||Protect core/home base|
|Desire to gain ground may cloud judgment and heighten emotions||More objectivity about what's important|
There are upsides to both approaches, as well as tradeoffs for choosing one exclusively over the other.
I realize that may sound like a cop-out…but stick with me. You’ll have clarity on the optimal life strategy soon.
The Systems Thinking Bathtub Analogy
In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows explains Systems Thinking through a bathtub analogy.
She introduces readers to two essential concepts: stocks and flows.2
Meadows explains: “A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity, an accumulation of material or information that has built up over time.” For a bathtub, the stock is the level of the water.
Flows are the “filling and draining” that directly impact the stock’s level. For the bathtub, flows are determined by the faucet and drain stopper.
Whereas offense is like an inflow that fills a bathtub with water, defense is minimizing outflow, stopping leaks through the drain. Both factors influence the stock level of the water—our results.
The takeaway, aside from that being the nicest drain icon of all time? In the game of life, most of us just optimize the inflow of water (offense). The problem is that all offense and no defense leads to wasted time and effort—down the drain.
Offensive and Defensive Life Systems
Now, let’s make this idea less porcelain-enameled and more concrete. We'll explore life systems through the framework of offense and defense.
Offensive personal systems lead to increases in performance (gaining ground). These systems are related to learning, developing new skills, networking, etc.
Defensive personal systems maintain your level of performance and keep you in the game. These systems are the fundamentals: drinking water, getting the right amount of sleep, sticking to a monthly budget, etc.
The greatest benefit of defense? It can lead to resilience. Oxford Languages defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”3
Here’s what I’m talking about:
- Saving money in a rainy day account: When that unexpected home repair is needed, you’ll have liquid assets on hand to weather that financial storm.
- Investing in backup gear (like a home generator): When inclement weather takes you off the grid, you’ll have an alternate source of energy to weather that actual storm.
- Hydrating and eating clean: When the common cold comes to town, you’ll have an immune response that keeps you healthy. Rather than being sidelined, you’ll keep progressing toward your goals.
In other words, defensive systems are the antidote to chaos. My question is: Are you executing on the fundamentals (a.k.a. defensive systems) that will keep you in the game?
Too often, in business and life, people overlook sound defense for the splashier offensive systems—all faucet and no drain stopper. For example, instead of companies focusing solely on acquiring new customers (faucet), they could also create a better user experience and eliminate churn (stopper).
Or, instead of HR policies focusing just on hiring (faucet), they could also focus on retaining talent through improved benefits (stopper).
As Meadows says, “There’s always more than one way to fill a bathtub.”
The lesson: Securing the stopper is a missed opportunity (and a wildly overlooked one at that). It’s almost always less expensive to secure the plug than turn on the faucet.
Interestingly, sometimes the best defensive strategies lead to offensive gains. Take the previous example of employee retention. Say the employer improves their 401(k) plan and adopts a flexible work-from-home model. A focus on retention can create a strong employee culture, leading to positive word of mouth and better Glassdoor reviews, each of which will help attract top-tier talent. In this way, a strategy of defense can lead to offense.
All to say, with a great defense, you know you’ll at least be in the game—in striking distance…
Deploying the Optimal Strategy
In 2016, Leicester City pulled off the greatest upset in sports history by winning the Premier League.4
Their odds at the beginning of the season: 5,000-1.
What’s even more impressive is that they spent a fraction (13%) of what the top teams dished out for their roster. For reference, Manchester City spent €418.8 million in 2015-2016, compared with Leicester city’s €54.4 million.5
So, how did “The Foxes” pull off this incredible feat?
I consulted System Sunday’s chief soccer correspondent, my little brother. Here’s what he told me:
“Leicester mastered the counterattack. They would absorb all the pressure of the other team’s offense. And just when those teams would overcommit, Leicester would bomb numbers up forward.”
In other words, they did the fundamentals (defense) well, then went big on select opportunities (offense).
This approach reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s “Barbell Strategy” as discussed in Black Swan and Antifragile.
Taleb uses a barbell to illustrate a bimodal strategy of extreme risk aversion on one end and extreme risk loving on the other—all the while deliberately avoiding the middle ground.
Taleb defines the Barbell Strategy as “a method that consists of taking both a defensive attitude and an excessively aggressive one at the same time, by protecting assets from all sources of uncertainty while allocating a small portion for high-risk strategies.”6
Here’s how this might look for an investment portfolio:
- Conservative/Low-Upside: 90% in cash or high-interest savings account.
- Risky/High-Upside: 10% in cryptocurrency investments.
This portfolio puts you in an optimal position because you cap your downside in the event of financial chaos (the most you could lose is 10% of your net worth). Simultaneously, you stand to make significant gains with the riskier crypto investment.
A bimodal strategy not only makes you resilient to chaos but also yields a higher expected return than simply playing the “moderate” investments.
Applying Barbell Strategy
You may be wondering how you can apply the Barbell Strategy to other areas in your life.
My suggestion is simple: Get good at the defensive systems first. Drink water, commit to enough sleep, eat clean.
I like Naval Ravikant’s take on this:
“I want to live in a way that if my life played out 1,000 times, Naval is successful 999 times. He’s not a billionaire, but he does pretty well each time. He may not have nailed life in every regard, but he sets up systems so he’s failed in very few places.”7
Let’s emphasize that last point: he sets up systems so he’s failed in very few places.
You see, success is often as simple as avoiding system failures and doing the fundamentals (defense) extremely well.
The words of Mayweather are worth repeating: “It’s protect yourself at all times.”
Then, from this position of strength, we’re ready to capitalize on high-leverage offensive activities.
Go all in on that grant for your nonprofit. Prepare hard for that keynote that’ll take your career to the next level. Pull out all the stops courting that special someone…
SOAK IT IN
Let’s bring this article home by returning to the bathtub analogy.
You thought I was going to mix it up with a shower? Nah.
By securing the stopper (playing sound defensive systems) AND turning on the faucet (pursuing select growth opportunities), you can create more inflow than outflow.
Soak it in. Because that, my friend, is how you’ll hit all-time levels.
- “The Highest-Paid Athletes Of The Decade: Mayweather, Ronaldo And LeBron Dominate” by Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows.
- “Resilience,” Google’s English dictionary provided by Oxford Languages.
- “How Leicester City's 5,000-1 odds compare to other long shots” by Paul Carr, ESPN.
- “Leicester Squad Cost Compared to Man City, Tottenham and Arsenal” by ESPN Staff, ESPN.
- The Black Swan: The Impacts of the Highly Improbable by Nasim Taleb.
- The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson, p. 183.