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Can’t Lose in a No-Win Situation

One of the great frustrations of life is finding yourself in a no-win situation where, no matter what you do, what choice you make, which direction you move, you cannot win. For so many of us, the movie series SAW is simply a metaphor for our Sunday to Saturday existence but with better graphics and the promise of death.

As a bit of a control freak in my younger days, situations like this would torture me. In my intellectual hubris, I was determined that if I only thought hard enough, if I could only see enough of the picture, I could find a loophole in this pattern and solve the problem.

If I was smart enough, damn it, I could win. If I didn’t win, then I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was… and we all knew that wasn’t true. [Did I mention hubris?]

And then, when I was a graduate student in biochemistry, my attitude changed about no-win situations.

I like to enjoy my work environment and the people who work around me. For an introvert, I was mostly amiable and had a quick wit. [We can argue whether it is wit or simply an inability/unwillingness to shut up.] And I got on well with most of the people in my department… most people.

Through a variety of sources, I learned that I had run afoul of the Chairman of my department. Seems he did not appreciate my humours and considered me unprofessional and slipshod. Understanding, if only minimally, that academia is politics and that I had almost zero power in this hierarchy, I reached out to the Chairman and apologized for any disruption I might have caused in his lab or generally. And I became more restrained in my daily activities, mostly around him.

But try as I might, nothing changed his attitude toward me. He still held me in contempt, and goodness knows, I wasn’t happy with the changes I had made. Initially, this realization was frustrating, but slowly I understood that his intractability was a huge gift to me. It was the gift of freedom.

If nothing I did would change his attitude toward me, what did it matter what I did? If I had to be contemptible in his eyes, I might as well be happy and contemptible. To me, at least, the Chairman’s opinion no longer mattered.

Yes, there was a cost to my career in his attitude. He held the higher ground academically. But the cost had already been incurred and could not be made worse, short of me committing a crime. In being intransigent, he became powerless over me, and more importantly, I was empowered to be me.

I’ve had similar experiences in my advertising career, where a client company has decided to invite us and other creative agencies to present new ideas on how we would market their products or services. For the agency-of-record (the one who currently has the client’s business), this is a no-win scenario. If you come up with something amazing, the client will ask why you didn’t give them this wonderful idea before, and if you don’t give them something amazing, you simply justify their decision to fire your agency. They are tired of you and simply want to make the monkey dance because they can.

You are stuck between a living Hell of an irritated client and losing the client’s business. So, why not have fun with the situation and go to the creative wall?

Be wild. Innovate. Abhor the conventional. Remind yourself why you got into the field. Unleash your creative passions. What is eschewed by this client can always be adapted for a future one, and in the process, you have rediscovered your joy.

I teach the No-Win scenario in my screenwriting classes. A character is never more dangerous than when they have lost everything because they now have nothing left to lose. When a character’s practical life has effectively ended, they are less likely to fear losing their physical life. They can act without hesitation, knowing that the worst that can happen already has.

Watch someone on their final week in a job. With rare exception, once they have accepted that they will be moving on, they are possibly at their most relaxed. The things they can control are coming to an end, and as I and several of my friends have said routinely in that circumstance: “What’re they going to do? Fire me?”

I’m not advocating anyone take a universal “Eff them!” attitude. No-win situations have repercussions. But rather than focus on what you cannot control, is it not better to transfer your energies into the things that you can?

If you cannot win here, where can you win? If you cannot win by their criteria, how can you win by yours? If you cannot win this part of your journey, what opportunities to win might come by changing direction?

What would Captain James T. Kirk do? [I resisted but couldn’t help myself.]

It likely won’t be obvious until you have done the work, and you are bound to need to adjust your current lifestyle and future plans, but a no-win situation can honestly be the best thing to ever happen to you.

I wish you luck and power, whatever you decide.


If you’re looking for tools and techniques to help you make the most of a No-Win situation, reach out to the Nicholas Lemon Productions team of constraint-defying rebels and lane-changing voyageurs.

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