Mayweather, Mourinho and avoiding mistakes

The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho and Floyd Mayweather have built successful careers by avoiding mistakes. Mourinho’s teams concede fewer goals, and are famous for  “parking the bus”. His 7 rules for winning big games can be summarized simply as “Don’t make mistakes”. Like Mourinho, Mayweather’s opponents land only 16% of their shots, less than half the rate of his last opponent.

They’ve both gone on to be very successful. Mourinho has won domestic titles in four different countries and is one of only 3 managers to win the UEFA Champions League with 2 different teams. Floyd Mayweather is undefeated through 50 fights and is one of the world’s highest paid athletes.

Obviously, this is not the only way to be successful. Muhammad Ali is the greatest fighter of all time and was not a defensive boxer. Other football managers play an expansive game that is more beautiful to watch and has led to as many titles. But, that’s not the whole story. Muhammad Ali’s greatest fights are those where he was able to defend well and withstand shots. Guardiola’s Barcelona success is, at least in part, a result of one of the greatest centre-back pairings of all time. Similarly, he struggled in Manchester City until he was able to find the right defenders, despite the wealth of attacking options.

In sports as in life, playing it safe gets a bad rap. Most business advice is focused on how to win instead of how not to lose. Journalists write stories about George Soros’ $1B bet or how Elon Musk invested all his PayPal earnings to start Tesla and SpaceX. You hear more about the times people take risks and succeed. You don’t hear about all the times people take risks and fail. In any case, you can’t become a hero for “playing it safe”. In the case of Mourinho, you can even become an anti-hero, a cautionary tale. Managers don’t get rewarded for the mistakes they avoid, but for the goals they score.

Yet, playing it safe makes sense. The future is impossible to predict and the goal is to be “alive” in as many versions of the future as possible. A strong defense or fall-back plan gives you that. Both Buffett and Munger credit avoiding mistakes for some of their success. This means they avoid some wins, but they also reduce their losses and live to fight another day.

Don’t believe the hype. Surviving is the only thing that matters. For every decision, the probability of unacceptable loss should be zero. Only those who survive can go on to win, whatever that means for you.

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