Transdisciplinary Design

Fútbol Is Life

Posted on December 14, 2021

“Fútbol is life” – Danny Rojas, Ted Lasso

I’ve been lucky enough to play soccer for most my life, but since TD has started and moving to New York, it’s a part of life I’ve been missing. A break has helped me appreciate how many of the lessons I learned from the game are relevant in life more generally. “Fútbol is life,” means to me, that fútbol is a metaphor for life, and maybe TD as well.

A game of relatively simple rules. 11 players, one field, don’t use your hands, one ball, two goals. The complexity that arises from such a simple set up astonishes me. And it pales in comparison to the complexity of the systems we are trying to figure out, let alone influence, in the world around us. What can be gleaned from the beautiful game that might help a designer?

In a single game, there is one main objective, win. And there are many philosophies as to how best to accomplish that. Who knows who’s right and who’s wrong, on any given day one team can beat another. Ideas change, tactics become obsolete, and strategies evolve. Stick the ball in the back of the net. Not so simple. But something has to be tried, not knowing which way will win is no reason not to try to win. But still lots of the time I lost. It seems design has lost many times as well. Has gotten many things wrong. If nothing else, my takeaway here is losing is a part of the game. I can extrapolate this out to big systems that are flawed, and down to projects and groups I work in. Some days are wins and some are losses. Obvious, but sometimes we only describe the problems design has created as bad, and while they might not be good, they seem to me to be just a part of the process of trying to help things. It’s okay, or inevitable, to lose when still trying.

As an individual player, my influence on the game could only go so far. The best player in the world loses games all the time. I played in more than a few games where I played better than usual and lost, and more than a few where I played abysmally and won. These games, these big systems and landscapes have trajectories of their own. I find the same reflection as above, there’s not much to do but keep trying, staying with the trouble so to speak.

And at the end of a game, one game ends but the bigger game is still being played. This is the finite versus infinite games point. As an example, in professional leagues the finite games are the actual games, and the infinite game is to keep playing in the league. The infinite game cannot be beat, winning is continuing to play, that’s all. And it’s much more important to be winning in the infinite game than the finite game. Though, of course winning some of the finite games is needed to be playing in the infinite one. While a rough comparison, economies and businesses are similar. The finite game, beating competitors, growing and getting more profits and customers, a higher stock price each quarter. What is the infinite game? Just to keep playing, that’s all. Too much emphasis on winning short-term games, and eventually the infinite game is lost. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s example of indigenous forestry management is perhaps a better example. In the chapter “Old Growth Children” from Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains a practice whereby trees are harvested, but in such a way that the forest continues to grow. This is excellence in the infinite game. The extreme win in the short-finite game would be chopping down all the trees, a big quick win, but then the game can’t be played.

Listening is my lesson from Braiding Sweetgrass. The sounds of the forest, the stories each bead of water tells, nothing in these great systems is coincidence. Keep an ear to the ground. There is art, too, in listening in soccer. As a player, I learned that I was only as good as my awareness. What to do had to be decided before it could be done, thinking steps ahead in other words. As a coach, it was again about the infinite game, is the team improving. What to listen to to find out, much more than just the results of the game. To see how a maple forest is growing, it’s not just about how many maples there are, but all of the undergrowth, the soil, there are sounds to be heard in the entire ecosystem. Similarly, the state of a team is more than their last result, morale, chemistry, vision and more, all constitute a team.

Perhaps most importantly, is Ted Lasso’s first lesson, believe. We can make the world better, bit by bit. That, and have fun while doing it. Life’s a big game we get to enjoy, I’m grateful to be on the field.