Lost in America? Good For You!

Our country loves a winner! We celebrate champions and value attaining most any competitive title. Generations of Americans have been imbued with the idea- “to the victor go the spoils.” Yet this concept only holds water if one believes that all struggles for sought goals are contested in zero-sum games. If there is only room for one “Number One,” are the rest afforded no gain? We have long had an overemphasis on winning. This excess goes for life’s other pursuits as well. Surely we recognize the dignity and grandeur in just the pure sincerity of intention, right? Our country needs to acknowledge the overlooked value of losing, and I believe we are starting to get there!

Recently the Philadelphia fan base in my area was disappointed by their Phillies and Union. Both teams experienced highly successful regular seasons and then excruciating losses in their possible crowning contests. Yet surprisingly, many of the historically over-expectant and obnoxious Philly supporters voiced admiration for the effort and gratitude for the highs shared along the way.

This was a far cry from the disgust shown to the 1968 Eagles (2-11), which manifested itself in fans pelting the halftime Santa Claus with snowballs! I have heard more- “It was a great run” and “Just wait until next year” rather than the usual ruffian vitriol. Is one of the most rabid fan bases in America softening? Isn’t this a salient sign of our overall culture learning to graciously accept losing as a necessary step forward? 

I played basketball growing up because it came easy to me. So when my son chose wrestling for his winter sport, I was uninformed and offered little coaching help. Frankly, I was skeptical that his experience would be positive at all. As a beginner, his match losses piled up despite his effort. By his senior year, however, the kid qualified for States. Clearly, though, the most positive takeaway of my son’s experience is what happened through all the defeats.

My boy learned to look an upper-class opponent in the eye and shake hands knowing a win was improbable. He committed to exerting himself each fateful match through pain, exhaustion, and embarrassment. He shared a time he was getting harshly pinned only to look up from his daze and witness his panicked girlfriend silhouetted by the gym’s ceiling lights, oomph! My son learned to rely on only himself for the outcome and endure losing. Learning to accept it but also securing new moves and defenses for next time. All in all a very rewarding experience that imparted important life instruction- all thanks to not winning!

Plenty of Americans have experienced painful losses only to become eventual iconic winners:

-Abe Lincoln lost twice in running for the U.S. Senate.

-The Wright Brothers built several gliders that lost to gravity before success at Kitty Hawk.

-Michael Jordan lost an opportunity to play varsity as a sophomore due to his average shooting skills.

– Oprah lost her first news program, and then lost her primetime anchor role.

Americans should go out and sincerely prepare to win and succeed, but if not- learn and grow! Embrace the process! Our win at all cost culture unfairly discounts losing’s necessary character building. I am not advocating mere participation, phoning it in, or quiet quitting. We should continue to try our utmost, but don’t dread losing or be scared of looking beaten in your full attempt. The popular clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson claims it is even necessary to be foolish before you can wholly master an undertaking. 

 I don’t mean to take anything away from winners here, but it is understood that often it takes skill and luck to come out on top. Should we really base our immediate identity solely on whether a ball bounces our way? Our country’s supremely popular football game uses a prolated spheroid that will oddly bounce any old direction. So does it really make sense to consider poorly our team’s worth without factoring in bad bounces?

“Winning isn’t everything – It’s the only thing” is a quote attributed first to Red Sanders, an early Vanderbilt, and UCLA football coach. Vince Lombardi (Fordham, US Military Academy, Green Bay Packers) later voiced it differently – “Winning is not everything but wanting to win is.” He believed that once the initial sting of stumbling subsides, we are left to embrace the earnest desire just experienced and glean as many positives from the effort as conceivable. Not easy, but necessary for growth. Isn’t growth towards maximum development really what Americans should yearn for, regardless of wins or losses? As I see it, the NFL got it right when Coach Lombardi was feted with his name on the Super Bowl Trophy, not Sanders. 

The schoolyard put-down: “you loser,” has been snarled and endured by generations of Americans.  It’s an uncomfortable mantle born from our hyper-competitive society, but honestly, who among us hasn’t come up short in the game or was unable to win the guy’s/girl’s affection. Who hasn’t been passed over for a promotion? Losing is universal. Should we disparage those who fail when the sheer numbers of losses and losers are infinitesimal?

Losing is never going away. Competition allows us to measure ourselves. It raises standards. Without the also-rans, there can be no worthy gauge on a human scale, not to mention any competitive race at all! We need to continue moving away from the shame, self-doubt, and depression often associated with defeat.

I do sense a positive shift from the negative stigma of loss and a fresh acceptance of the paramount exposure absorbed from any competitive journey. Brace yourself, America. Our next journey through the World Cup with our very young national soccer team will surely be an educational saga! Even though the soccer ball is round and bounces true, the subjective nature of the game will permit crushing unwarranted defeats. Ultimately, only one nation survives. Remember to enjoy the spectacle, drama and our growth despite the outcome. So if a foreign soccer hooligan barks- “You losers!” We might just counter with “It is really okay -in the long run it could be good for us”!


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John A. Hughes

John Hughes hails from Wilmington, Delaware. He has lived throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England in his 35 years working in the Commercial Furniture Industry. He remains an active parent of 2 children in their twenties and enjoys running and golfing.

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