Thursday, January 8, 2009

Learning to Lose

This post continues some themes I discussed on August 30 and December 11. The topic of "learning to lose" was suggested by Adam in a comment on the August 30 post.

Knowing how to lose gracefully is a mark of good sportsmanship. After all, losing a game does not make you a loser. The team that loses the Super Bowl is the second best team in professional football that year.

Similarly, knowing how to take a trading loss, as Adam pointed out, is not the sign of a loser. It shows that the person has enough humility to recognize when he has gotten it wrong.

For now I want to emphasize a point Benedict Carey made in a recent New York Times article: "Some Protect the Ego By Working on Their Excuses Early." Link here.

When I read Carey's article I started thinking that losing can become learned behavior, and that some people are especially good at it. You can be so humble that you can become comfortable with losing. One sign of this temperament, Carey suggested, is when you are good at making excuses.

Your life will not be about being on time and it will not be about apologizing when you are regrettably late. Its purpose will lie in your ability to have an excuse at the ready for each and every act of bad behavior. And this, Carey correctly said, requires work.

Even more correctly, he notes that people who are really proficient at making excuses enlist others to cover for them. If that is your MO you do not even have to make excuses; your understanding and compassionate friends will excuse you. They might even believe that this shows how nonjudgmental they are.

Good sportsmanship does not involve making excuses. It is possible to do your best and still lose, as the article makes clear. But if you do not try to salve the pain of defeat with a good excuse, you are going to experience embarrassment or shame.

Strangely enough, people who avoid the shame of defeat are less likely to be motivated to succeed. I discussed this point in my December 11 post. Carey expressed it this way: "The burn of embarrassment is... the pilot light of motivation."

If making excuses protects from shame, the better we are at making excuses the easier it will be to accept sub par performance.

Isn't this what happens when you undergo a form of psychotherapy that plumbs the depths of your psyche in order to find out Why you keep getting things wrong? Doesn't such a therapy risk teaching you more and better ways to excuse your own bad behavior and that of others... beginning with your therapist?

Such a therapy does not show people the path to success. It teaches them how to feel better about failing.

People who keep asking Why are not winners; they are why-ners.

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