The importance of “playing up”

The importance of “playing up”

I shared the importance of “playing up” with a group of mentors as part of a university club.  The term “playing up” essentially has you with your “betters”.  Those that are better than you for the topic that you are associated with them.  Suppose you join the volleyball club and you’re an average/intermediate level player.  Two teams ask you to be their 6th person – one team is in the lower recreational division where you would by far be the best person on the team; the other is part of the advanced tier where you’d probably be the worst player on the team.  Let’s say you’re focused on improving your volleyball skills (i.e. you’re not worried about friends on either team or other non-volleyball related reasons to pick a team, which do you chose?

A quote comes to mind “if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room”.  Apply this to to the volleyball example and you have the answer.  And apply this to whatever you want to learn and you’ll have an accelerator in getting better.

Why should I “play up”? That’s typically one of the first questions that come up, and it goes back to the goal of learning.  You often learn by doing and sometimes learn by observing, asking for coaching / mentorship,  and putting yourself in a situation where you have a betterment goal that you can see.  In our example, if you were the best player on the court, then you probably are not improving much even though you might be going through hours of “practice” (in quotes as you probably would be just going through the motions versus truly challenging yourself to get better, and you might actually find yourself regressing as it would be “all too easy”).  If you chose to “play up” with the advanced team, then you’d really have no choice but to get better (assuming your teammates put up with you long enough for you to improve)..

Why is it hard to “play up”? Some people are challenged in “playing up” as it is quite difficult to be not the best in the room.  Playing up means that you may often be the “weakest link”.  There is a lot of pressure to show you are pulling your weight and you are likely to make a lot of mistakes in the process.  And mistakes are never hard to endure.  But a slight perspective shift actually makes it easier: don’t treat them as mistakes, treat them as “lessons” you haven’t fully learned yet.  Learn from those “mistakes”.  Observe how others do it better.  Ask for advice and guidance.  Take those “lessons” and internalize them to make yourself better.

Alternatives:  Now people who have heard me say this, sometimes ask: “well aren’t you usually the ‘smartest person’ in the room when it comes to career mentor coaching?” and my response (as corny as it may seem) is that I never think I’m the smartest person in the room and always try to learn from those around me (which has always served me well as learning sometimes comes from the most unexpected places).  People have such diverse experiences that I always try to learn from those in the room.  So you can change your perspective in another way as well and change the quote to something along the lines of “enter each room as if you aren’t the smartest, and you’ll be surprised what you can learn”.


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