Friday, January 25, 2013

Not Everybody Gets To Win

I have no doubt that in your life, you have seen a sports film.  One about overcoming adversity and realizing dreams, where somebody's dream is to take it to the championship and make it to the finals!  That's great.  Because you have come to this website and you're presumably literate, you know that I am all about competition and making dreams happen.

But let's pretend we've got a movie about high-school baseball.  There are God knows how many high-school baseball teams in America.  I am sure there are plenty of people who just kind of show up to practice because they don't have anything better to do, but some of those players have dreams of playing in the pros.  And they work their butts off morning, noon, and night to make that happen.  So after several years of work, a personal tragedy and a montage later, they get ready for their own, personal, dramatic success story.

And then somebody on another team with their own dramatic story thrashes you and knocks you out of the playoffs.  Life is unfair.

It's a popular saying that we're all the main characters of our own stories.  There are a lot of stories being lived and written.  If it's important to pursue your dream, then how do you justify it when your dream excludes somebody else's?  You can't have two first places, you can't have two "bests."  There may be somebody crying on the second place podium, or out in the parking lot because they didn't make top ten, even though they worked so hard.

Do we start committees to determine who "deserves" first place more?  Do we all step out of the way when somebody with a bigger dream comes by?  Do we stop to make sure we aren't the asshole high-school baseball team with rich parents and fancy equipment, so we don't accidentally stomp on plucky underdogs by mistake?  No, and I don't think we should.

Competitions are for determining who wins.  Who wins is typically determined by who played best.  There is no point in deciding who should win without having the competition.  You abide by the results.  That's competing.  That's life.  How do you resolve the unfairness of it all?

Well, answer number one is this: you don't.  Go out to a savannah and tell a lion that the gazelle really wants to live today and it's not fair.  Then go tell the gazelle it's not fair he should live while a lion starves to death.  Lions don't normally eat gazelles, actually, but the point stands.  When you compete with mutually exclusive goals, someone loses.  End of story.

Answer two is the one I use for resolving apparent paradoxes: switch your focus.  Emphasizing the results of competitions and putting ALL value on outcomes is a quick track to sadness, low self-esteem, and poor results.  Even when you get good results, you still feel like crap most of the time.  I've mentioned it here before (I think) but studies show parents who raise children to value themselves as hard workers regardless of outcome are the ones who actually produce better outcomes.  And they have higher self-esteem and bounce back from failure more, which are also the characteristics of people who succeed more in the long term.

Winning feels amazing and losing feels crummy.  This is not really in dispute.  Nor is this an attempt to make people feel like "hey it doesn't matter if I win or lose."  Why would you have a competition to see who the best is?  I'm a fan of them and don't really want them to go away, and I don't think people should get a passing grade for showing up to take the test.  The question that matters more (especially when you're playing sports and games whose outcomes aren't life and death) is what kind of person do you become on your path to improvement?  Are you somebody who gives up if it looks like you can't be #1 every time?  Or are you somebody who rolls with the punches and hits the drawing board harder with every failure, who is devoted to perfecting your abilities as best they can be perfected?

Do results matter?  Yes.  The goofy thing is, obsessing over results (in the vast majority of cases) leads to poor results.  It also leads to neurotic behavior and unpleasant experiences in the meantime.  If you care about getting good results, don't obsess over your results.  Obsess over the procedures that lead to good results.  Congratulate yourself when you work hard and stick to a problem long after you want to quit.  Celebrate your honest efforts and analysis towards improvement.  Reward yourself for generating new ideas even when they don't work out.

Remember; when two amazing, unbelievable, seemingly inhuman competitors face each other, it means that an amazing, unbelievable, seemingly inhuman competitor will get second place.  Does it means he/she suddenly sucks, and is worthless?  Even if the struggle is close and both participants think it was the best competition of their lives?  Another thing to consider: even if there's no point to being anything but the best, why would you want to be the best at something without competition?  You need lots of valuable competitors to make it worth being at the top.  If you become an incredible player, and you get seventh place, you have still done your part in making it a game worth winning.  By pushing yourself, you have pushed others.  And you do it through training and pouring your heart and soul into the game, through pursuing skill and understanding through hardship.   When the game is over, the competitor vanishes, but the person you've become through your efforts will carry on.  Making that person the best they can be is what matters.

Thanks for reading.


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