Obsession with winning crowds out useful lessons

Posted: February 26, 2012

William Ecenbarger

is a freelance writer living in Hershey

It was a numbingly familiar Super Bowl postgame show: The victorious New York Giants afire with fist-in-the-air, back-thumping jubilation, mouthing sweet clich├ęs about team effort, field position, points on the board, ball control, and sticking to the game plan.

There was a fleeting, almost subliminal shot of a New England Patriots player, slumped under a yoke of grief around his neck, biting his lips to fight back the tears. The television director quickly switched back to the Giants and their 300-watt smiles.

But how fascinating it would have been to remain amid the losers - for any fool can win; it's losing that's the challenge. Moreover, there's a lot to be said for failure. Success goes to the head, but losing goes to the heart.

Losing is part of the price of life - in a job, in a relationship, on the tennis court. Death and resurrection, dying and renewal - these are the kernels of life, all of us born to sorrow.

It begins early. Little League, science fairs, spelling bees. Later there are pink slips, unrequited love, and, finally, death. For millions of people, the wrong Ping-Pong balls drop every night. As Gore Vidal put it: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." Losing is one of life's constant companions, ever unwelcome, ever there. The Rolling Stones had it right: You can't always get what you want.

Nevertheless, losing is a taboo in our society. The ultimate put-down is "loser," and failure is the ultimate F word. Hundreds of books have been written on how to win, scarcely any on how to lose.

Yet losers changed the world. Columbus missed his target by thousands of miles, Thomas Edison had most of his inventing triumphs before the age of 40 and in his later years rolled up an ever-increasing number of failures. Mozart died impoverished. Van Gogh was a suicide. Churchill distracted himself from defeat with painting, writing, gardening, and breeding butterflies.

Winner-worship is embedded early. Children returning from games are asked whether they won or lost, not if they had fun. Parents often allow their children to win at games, ill-preparing them for the game of life. Some educators believe that flunking is so detrimental to self-esteem that they move children along to the next grade whether they pass academic muster or not. Thus, to avoid the experience of losing, we shuffle children through an educational system already overly tolerant of incompetents - setting them up for bigger failures.

Winner-worship and loser-loathing are most evident in sports, but few losers suffer more acutely than defeated political candidates.

George McGovern was devastated by the magnitude of his loss in the 1972 presidential election - he carried only Massachusetts - and it took him several years to get over the personal sense of rejection he felt. Jimmy Carter was stunned by his landslide 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan, and for about five years, he all but vanished from the national political scene. Several years after he, too, was swamped by Reagan, Walter Mondale was asked how long it took to recover. "I'll let you know when the grieving ends," Mondale said.

We pay a terrible price for losing-loathing. What better way to avoid losing than to never enter the fray? If that attitude had prevailed throughout our history, the Wright Brothers might have stayed in the sand at Kitty Hawk, Ben Franklin might have taken his kite home, and Andrew Carnegie might not have gone into the steel business (too risky for an immigrant!).

Americans still revere the image of the lone cowboy, riding off into the sunset in search of his destiny, but we've become a nation of timid couch potatoes, spectators content to watch the Patriots and the other losers suffer.

Americans need to lose their fear of losing, even see that it has a positive side. For one thing, you're among friends. For another, there are many more ways to lose than there are to win. Winning isn't always worth its weight in blue ribbons, and losing can be positive and ennobling if it compels us to examine why we lost.

E-mail William Ecenbarger at william.ecenbarger@gmail.com.

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