The Human Condition:

The Power in Losing – July 12, 2020

Sprint finale

It has been a commonplace of modern education—and I can only hope it was never this common—that teachers and coaches in the lower grades have abandoned competition for some sort of communal achievement. Teams no longer pick their own players. Matches no longer keep score. Everyone gets a participation trophy. No one gets their feelings hurt. Everyone feels good about themselves.

That sort of toothless play might be appropriate in preschool among the toddler set, or perhaps in kindergarten, so that every child gets a baby-taste of sports while they are still too young to understand the game and its rules. But by the time a child is six or so, and capable of understanding—and also in the final stages of forming his or her initial character1—then the training wheels must come off. Then the child must begin learning what it is to win and, more importantly, what it is to lose, and how to do either one gracefully and in good fellowship.

Young people are supposed to test themselves, try hard things, and occasionally fail. If life is easy, if you are never challenged and never given the opportunity to fail, you only develop half of your character. Sure, it hurts not to be picked for the team at tryouts—or to be picked last when the hopefuls line up, knowing that no one really wants you but the coach says everybody has to play, or the team still has an empty place on the roster. Sure, it hurts when your team does its best and still loses. But these are opportunities to build character and decision more than they are blows to self-esteem.

If you are picked last, you then are forced think about why. Are your skills demonstrably lacking at softball, soccer, or whatever sport you have chosen? Are you unpopular with the other children? This is the time for self-reflection. If you are unpopular, then do you care more about playing than being yourself? Or are your personality, your behavior, your treatment of others in need of improvement? If you are unskilled, then do you care enough about playing to practice on your own and get better? Or is this the time to decide that softball or soccer is not really one of your core interests, and maybe your time would be better spent practicing for football season—or reading a book?

If your team has lost, then you are also forced think about why. Did you make obvious mistakes? Does your team need more practice? Did the other team have special moves or better signaling and coordination? Is there a way to improve your play so that you can win against them next time? It’s an adage in business that to increase your success rate, you need to increase your failure rate. That means to trying more things, trying different things, and learning from unforced errors and non-stupid mistakes. It’s also an adage in the arts—attributed to graphic novel writer Stephen McCranie—that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

A child who has never been appropriately challenged does not learn the skills of introspection and self-evaluation. He or she does not have the opportunity to become really skilled and developed at something difficult. Worse, he or she does not get the chance to make deep and lasting decisions about his or her core strengths and desires.

Such a child grows into a brittle and indecisive adult. Such an adult lacks the resilience of someone who has experienced both success and failure and knows where his or her strengths and weaknesses lie. Such an adult is not practiced in the art of self-examination and self-knowledge. Such an adult will tend to believe, deep down, that life should be fair and even-handed in order for him or her to succeed.

The world is a brutal and savage place. For good reason, the childhood version in the classroom and at play needs to be controlled and monitored so that children have a place to develop without being emotionally and spiritually crushed. But neither should they be so sheltered from reality that they fail to develop at all. Then the crushing will come later, in the real world that does not care for feelings, only results. And the young adult will not be prepared for it.

Such an adult will also lack the ability to exhibit what I call “grace.” He or she will lack the calmness—attained through self-knowledge and confidence in one’s own skills—to face challenges and work through them, come what may. He or she will lack the perspective to win with charity, knowing that the loss might have gone the other way, and to lose with dignity, knowing that the win was within his or her grasp. This quality makes for balanced, stable, and charitable people—the sort who are a pleasure to work alongside and to make your friend.

Success teaches you very little, except—sometimes—how to be a gracious winner and good sport to the people you’ve bested. In failure lies the power to grow and develop. And that’s golden.

1. The Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola is supposed to have said, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Whether this is true or not, we learn a lot in those preschool and kindergarten years.