You Can't Win Unless You Learn How To Lose

The Art and Values of Losing

No one likes to lose. Not exactly a profound declaration, eh?

It’s painful. Agonizing, even, especially when there is a lot at stake. The degree to what’s on the line at any point in time, of course, differs from individual to individual, case to case, team to team, relationship to relationship.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve hit the jackpot in life, love, business, politics, sport, family, parenting or anything else — going down to defeat eats at you somewhere along the emotional spectrum of:

  • a gracious nod to and respect for the better person or team
  • a grudging “oh well, good effort”
  • heartbreak
  • being distraught and dwelling on it
  • being pissed
  • being in self-denial
  • placing blame

Life is a series of contests, challenges and finding common ground. Winning is doubtless a sweet elixir, most often the result of preparation, execution, sheer will and sometimes a sprinkling of good fortune. Sometimes the game clock runs out, the buzzer sounds, the ninth inning concludes, the referee holds up the other guy’s arm, and the counting concludes. Sometimes the other team/company/individual takes home the trophy or the contract or the girl or the election. Scoreboard don’t lie.

Lessons Learned From Losing

Inarguably, one of the most essential lessons nearly all of us learned growing up was that defeat is the yin to victory’s yang. Not everyone could win, especially not every time at everything. Taking a licking smacks of stink, stank, stunk. Still, we learned, sometimes quite painfully (and very often not so apparent at the time), that coming up short also provided valuable lessons about life, including being gracious in defeat.

The lessons that accompany defeat are more valuable than applying a measure — indeed, a befitting dose — of civility. They can be life-shaping. Defeat teaches you to work harder. It teaches you humility. It teaches you that the name on the front of the uniform is time and again more important than the name on the back. It can be a formidable wake-up call and motivator, making you stronger, smarter and hungrier. It teaches the value of fighting the good fight, giving your all, and respecting differences.

In a full-circle sort of way, losing can, therefore, be a significant contributor to winning.

And it’s seldom the dominant feature of one’s life. As legendary college basketball coach John Wooden said, “Losing is only temporary and not all-encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it, and try hard not to lose the same way again. Then you must have the self-control to forget about it.”

The Blame Game

How one accepts losing ties directly to one’s character. Granted, battles can be hard-fought and losses excruciating. Moreover, respecting one’s fellow competitor isn’t always easy — ultimately, ambitions and goals are pretty much identical. Win. But, for goodness sakes, not at all costs, and not, once the outcome is settled, by assailing the character or the veracity of one’s competition. Differences can be stark — mindset, upbringing, personal views, conservative, liberal — but losing is part of the deal. It’s hard. It’s also a part of life that can be wielded to better one’s life, business and even country. defines blame this way: “To hold responsible; find fault with; censure.” Generally speaking, pointing the blame finger after a competition — or worse yet, in anticipation of an outcome — brings with it, at least in the mind of the accuser, a sense of superiority, a guaranteed soft landing spot, and a perception of victimization. In close association with self-denial, this saddest rung on the defeat ladder is the polar opposite of embracing competition and its outcome with dignity and graciousness. It’s a personal referendum of image over reality.

Perhaps Paul Brown, Hall of Fame NFL coach and executive, said it best. “When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.”

Graciousness in Defeat

Illustration Credit Rob Barge Hardware Graphic Design + Illustration Studio

Illustration Credit: Rob Barge Hardware Graphic Design + Illustration Studio

There is a reason history records graciousness in defeat in such a positive manner. It’s not because we embrace “losers.” It’s because we as a society understand that sportsmanship and civility are lofty yet attainable goals. It’s because rivals who commit wholly to the struggle inspire us. Our mind’s eyes well recall standing ovations for the vanquished, stirring concession speeches, and the sweaty embraces of competitors who have left it all on the field. Whatever the field.

Or the ice. Wouldn’t the world be so much better off if, following hard-fought, public competitions, opponents emulated the inspiring closing tradition of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) final contest, lining up after the final buzzer to acknowledge one another’s efforts, each player and coach in a single row going in opposite directions extending his hand to each opponent, knowing full well that the line is fine, indeed,
between rivals who nobly shed blood, sweat and tears?

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