Impose your game

I was not always a man of peace. It is no secret I used to run an illegal underground fighting ring1. It is also no secret a cornerstone of my life is the ongoing study of martial arts. I used to love violence, and the addictive rush of adrenaline2.

In a typical street fight, physical strength and mental determination are key. A young, tall, in-shape person has an advantage. Adrenaline and surprise could give anyone an edge. Training was always the tie-breaker, and I was determined to have more training than anyone.

Then I grew up.

The secret to winning a fight, any fight, is being able to set the rules of engagement.

[W]ith most businesses and with most individuals, life tends to snap you at your weakest link. So it isn't the strongest link you're looking for among the individuals in the room. It isn't even the average strength of the chain. It's the weakest link that causes the problem.

It may be alcohol, it may be gambling, it may be a lot of things, it may be nothing, which is terrific. But it is a real weakest link problem. When I look at our managers, I'm not trying to look at the guy who wakes up at night and says "E = MC 2" or something. I am looking for people that function very, very well. And that means not having any weak links.

The two biggest weak links in my experience: I've seen more people fail because of liquor and leverage—leverage being borrowed money. Donald Trump failed because of leverage. He simply got infatuated with how much money he could borrow, and he did not give enough thought to how much money he could pay back.


Consider the lion

There is no reality in which a human being can win a fight against a lion. We are simply too slow, weak, and squishy. Our fingernails make terrible claws, and our fangs are not much to write home about either.

So why is it we are the ones hunting lions to extinction instead of the other way around?

Because we set the rules of the game.

When a human sets out to hunt and kill a lion3, it is not about physical strength, sharp teeth, and speed. We make the game about information asymmetry, situational awareness, and which of the two animals involved happens to possess a high-powered rifle4.

I still keep an eye on the underground fighting world, and the above-ground MMA world. People have spent years arguing over the rise and fall of Brazilian Jujitsu, the relative merits of strikers compared to wrestlers, strength over endurance.

If you go back and study any fight that is considered surprising or an upset, a small minority of them will have come down to dumb luck. In the vast majority of cases, something else happened: the winner forced a losing game onto their opponent.

When your enemy makes the game about their point of strength against your point of weakness, you have lost.

Sometimes you can see the exact moment it happens—many seconds or even entire rounds before the fight is over.

I have met arthritic pensioners, clumsy single mothers, and hemophiliac accountants whom I count among the most dangerous people I know. Not because of their strength, or their size, or the extent of their martial arts skills. They are dangerous because they know how to impose their game onto others, and once you begin playing their game, you will always lose.

Know your strengths

The first step in imposing your game? Knowing what it is in the first place5.

Warren Buffet talks about this vital bit of self-knowledge in a 1996 shareholder letter. In it, he discusses the idea of operating from within your circle of competence:

What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word "selected": You don't have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

1996 Chairman's Letter, Warren Buffet

Know your limits and leverage your strengths. This is not the only rule to keep in mind as you move through life, but it sure is a good one6.

The freedom of constraints

When I first studied this concept, I thought I would find it limiting. My area of competence is small, and the world is so very large. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Deciding to operate inside your circle of competence is liberating, not confining.

If you know people then you know how to connect to them, how to spot the same skill in others, and how to avoid the traps of charismatic manipulation. You know how to pick a partner. You know how to keep and maintain relationships with contractors, local politicians, and other business owners.

These are skills you can take anywhere.

If you know construction, then what you really know is the value of physical labor. How to schedule complex, long-term projects with a dozen moving parts. How to negotiate a contract. How to navigate bureaucracy and manage client expectations.

This is a circle of competence that can be applied in endless contexts—even ones that have nothing to do with wearing hardhats or laying tile.

Changing contexts is not without its risks. If you feel uncomfortable and wonder if you are out of your depth, then you already know the answer. Listen to your fear and take action to mitigate your risks.

Even more terrifying is the thought that you could fail to realize you are operating out of your circle of competence. Ignorance is the mother of disaster, but no failure is ever a complete waste if it leads to knowledge.

Once you know your circle of competence, possess an intimate understanding of its boundaries, and dedicate yourself to staying within that circle, you will trend towards success the way streams trend towards the ocean. Not because of magic, but because you have made success the most likely outcome.

Develop your circle of competence and operate within it.

Andrew Reeves is an entrepreneur, touring musician, and practitioner of eleven martial arts. He reached financial independence at age 28 and has dedicated his retirement to fighting crime and helping others.


  • 1

    No, I won't say which one.

    That would be telling.

  • 2

    I always say that anyone who studies martial arts in order to win fights is doing it wrong.

    Turns out I did it wrong for the about the first twenty years.

  • 3

    You know you should not do this, right? Right?

  • 4

    As the old saying goes, never bring a lion to a gun fight.

  • 5

    Right action always follows right knowledge.

    In other words, first you Power Up, then you Magnetize.

  • 6

    Turns out there are no rules. Only guidelines, suggestions, and heuristics.

    But you knew that, right?

What does your circle of competence look like? Are you a striker or a wrestler? When have you successfully imposed your game in order to create a positive outcome?


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