Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Losing, Participation, and Feeling Good

When it comes to losing and how you should approach competition, I guess my stance on the whole subject is a little weird.

Part of it comes from a belief I've come to develop, which is that pain, discomfort, frustration, and failure are not the same thing as unhappiness.  In fact, the happiest people seem to be the ones who deal with pain, discomfort, frustration, and failure the best.  It's not about avoiding those unpleasant emotions, it's about learning how to weather them and channel them.  It's about confidence in knowing that your mind's architecture is solid enough to handle any storm.  And there's really only one way to develop that strength, which is by experiencing the negative emotions.  You don't learn how to do things by not doing them until you're good at them, and the same thing comes from learning how to handle the unpleasant aspects of life.

Another analogy you could use would be comparing your emotional responses to your immune system.  The immune system gets stronger by experiencing diseases, provided those diseases don't kill you or cripple you.  Healthy people are the ones who experience a tolerable amount of invasion that their body learns to handle.  So as long as you aren't ravaged by a disease (or traumatized by an unpleasant event) then it does, indeed, make you stronger.

And competition, as we know it in the forms of games and events, is mostly useful for one thing, which is teaching us how to handle life.  So if we're going to learn how to bounce back from (inevitable) failure, we need to experience it.  We need to learn to deal with being tired and unmotivated.  We need to learn to deal with looking stupid in front of people who want nothing more than to see us fail.  We have to learn to do necessary stuff that isn't any fun, and we have to learn to focus and be stoic even when we aren't inspired or excited to show up to life that day.

Another belief I have is that winning is important, which is why you shouldn't focus on it.  That's kind of goofy.  Consistent performance matters, and obsessing over short term results can often lead to bad habits, so you have to ignore results initially.  When you focus on getting your routines right, you end up with more success.  An analogy for this case would be working out; you want to work out with good form even if it means you have fewer repetitions than your gym buddies, because if you cheat and kip and spaz to get higher numbers, you inhibit your long-term progress and run the risk of injury.  If you obsess over winning now, you might cripple your chances of winning later... so because winning (or achieving your goal) is important, there are times when you have to ignore it.  The real question to ask is, "did I do this the right way," not "did I get a good result?"  Even though there (rightfully) is overlap between the two, you focus on the first because it leads to more of the second.

Do I believe in things like participation ribbons?  Well, sort of.  You start your successes by showing up to the game, and you shouldn't tell kids that "if you don't think you're gonna win, don't bother showing up."  But the thing is, you participate to learn, and you learn so you can succeed, and you try to succeed because you don't want to fail.  So reward kids not just for showing up, but for showing up and trying hard to win.  For investing and improving.  Don't reward them for talent, reward them for effort, since talent already rewards itself.  And if they screw around, kick them in the shins.  Or, I don't know, scold them.

Something I don't believe in is telling people to "find what you love, and do it," because you end up not doing anything.  Like I said before, everything sucks sometimes.  People don't love what they do everyday.  It's not how things actually happen in real life.  Some days you get up and the last thing you want to do is write, or plant seeds, or make another blasted chart about the behavior of rats in a lab.  If you tell people "when you do what you love, it doesn't feel like work," then they will often equate that lesson with "if it feels like work, I shouldn't be doing it."  Which is a really useless way to maintain a healthy mindset (or society, really).  You learn to do stuff even when you don't love it.  Otherwise you end up with parents who leave their baby at a Chuck'E'Cheese so they can road trip to Las Vegas because the darn thing was crying too loudly.

It's like above, you teach people to become comfortable with discomfort, with losing, with being annoyed, with being frustrated.  You teach them to channel the unpleasant energy somewhere useful so they can focus on what matters.  So that when they're tired and unmotivated after their shift at the bank, they still have the fortitude to work on their novel while other people are putting it off, even though they definitely don't love the idea of writing that day.

Because what it comes down to isn't how we avoid adversity and unpleasantness and loss forever.  It's how we teach ourselves to weather them and channel them and use them.  That way we do what we love even when we don't love it, and we keep getting stronger.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I've missed these. You are becoming a very talented writer btw. What are you going to school for? or are you done with it by now? Also we miss you on smashboards.

  2. That paragraph on 'doing what you love' sums up my thoughts on the subject much more concisely and accurately than i'd be able to. Good read.

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  4. The process of learning itself comes with a certain degree of agitation. We have to learn how to get over that and ourselves to excel.