In Defense of Losing

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” (Henry Ford)

The other day, as I sat writing at the giant community table at my local Starbucks, relatively oblivious to the outside world due to a pair of noise-canceling earbuds and an unhealthy proximity to my computer screen, a young boy plopped down in the seat next to me. He was no older than eight or nine and had floppy brown hair, a spiral-bound notebook, and orange Nike running shoes. (I’m a runner. I notice shoes.) I looked up as he sat down. I smiled. He smiled back.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I said.

He folded his arms across his notebook and held it to his chest. His legs dangled from the chair, and he swung them back and forth as he waited for his drink.

“I like your shoes. Do you like to run?” I asked.

He nodded and smiled (wider than the first time). “Yeah. I like it a lot.”

“That’s cool. I like to run, too. Do you run at school?”

“Yeah! Sometimes we have races on the track.”

“Very cool!”

“Yeah! We had a bunch of races the other day. And I won!” His legs swung back and forth as his excitement rose. “And there were older kids racing, too!”

“Oh, wow! You won! That’s awesome!” I gave him a high five. “Well, congratulations! Did you get a medal?”

His countenance suddenly dropped. His legs stopped swinging. His enthusiasm vanished.

“Well, kinda. I mean, everybody got a medal. We’re not allowed to have winners and losers. So I didn’t really win. But I crossed the line before anyone else did.”

I was appalled. Not allowed to have winners and losers?

“So no one wins and no one loses? Even in races?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “I think it’s so no one feels bad.” He shrugged again. “But it’s not as much fun.”

“Ah,” I nodded, figuratively and literally biting my tongue in order to avoid voicing my opinion on the matter, which happens to be quite strong and unequivocal. “Well, you know you won. And your friends know you won. And I know you won. So, you won. Got it?”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t convinced.

“And you keep running your hardest at those races, okay? Because if you cross the finish line before anyone else, you’re the winner—even if everybody gets a medal. You’ll know you won. Right?”

“Yeah.” He smiled.

“Cuz you’re fast.”

He smiled widely again. “Yeah.”

Our conversation ended after that. He left with his Frappuccino, and I returned to my computer screen, leaning forward and typing with the same short-range intensity of a senior Floridian grasping the steering wheel of a baby blue Lincoln Continental. 

Not allowed to have winners and losers? Because it might make someone feel bad?

What life skills are kids learning from this? What real world scenario are we preparing them for? Apathy? Indifference? To expect equal rewards to be doled out no matter the amount of skill, training, effort, or work involved?

That’s not racing. That’s socialism.

Kids aren’t dumb. My young friend saw through the “Everybody wins!” bull. He loved running. He was good at it. He enjoyed the effort and exhilaration of competition. Yet his enthusiasm was being smothered exactly when it should have been kindled. If no one can lose, then no one can win—so why should he try? He would be rewarded the same whether he sprinted or shuffled. Effort was nothing more than an exercise of futility. He saw it. He knew it. One day of homogenized results at a track meet, and he learned it’s not worth striving for anything greater than handouts.

He was eight.

Far from building up “self-esteem” and confidence, uniform reward wholly devalues the worth of an accomplishment.

Sports are an incredible tool for character building, but its virtue is contingent on competition. It is not the activity itself that teaches, but the conflict. Anyone can go through the motions, but to truly compete, you must throw yourself into an effort for which you have prepared and in which success is not guaranteed. To compete is an act of daring. And while victory is thrilling, losing is the sage instructor, revealing our character even as it builds it. Through losing, we learn what it takes to win. We learn how to look at ourselves objectively, to assess our shortcomings, improve on our weaknesses, and cultivate our strengths. We learn to respect those ahead of us even while we refuse to be intimidated by them. We learn to try again when we fail, to work harder, to do better, to not make the same mistakes again. We learn to persevere despite setbacks. We learn the necessity of self-discipline and hard work. We learn what it means to have backbone, pluck, chutzpah. We learn what it means to be resolved and committed. We learn not to let losing define us, but to let it motivate and drive us ever forward.

Losing instills in us what winning requires.

Some of the most successful people in the world were once unanimously declared losers. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Oprah Winfrey lost her job as a news anchor because she “wasn’t fit for television.” The Beatles were snubbed by Decca Recording Studios because they had “no future in show business.” Elvis Presley was told by a manager at the Grand Ole Opry that he should quit singing and go back to his job driving trucks in Memphis. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he wasn’t creative enough. Kurt Warner was making $5.50 an hour stocking shelves at HY-VEE before he was signed by the St. Louis Rams in 1998. And even then he was the third-string quarterback to Steve Bono and Tony Banks. TONY BANKS.

The next year, he quarterbacked the Greatest Show on Turf, winning the NFL MVP Award and prompting a Sports Illustrated cover with the caption, “Who Is This Guy?” Well, he was the guy who lost. Until he won the Super Bowl.

Teddy Roosevelt famously stated, “…there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Losing is necessary. It is part of life. But it is not final. This is what we must teach kids. We are doing them a great injustice by ignoring the matter. We are, quite simply, lying to them, and in our vain desire to protect them from light and momentary disappointment, we are robbing them of the great elations. Without failure, there is no excellence. Without competition, there is indifference. Without reward, there is apathy. When we eliminate losing, we create cold and timid souls, not only unable to feel great emotion, but unwilling to.

Because when no one can lose, nobody wins. 

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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