A Tale of Agony {Or Whatever Happened to Winning?}


I’m not sure when it happened, but some time during the last thirty years our culture forgot how to celebrate success. We forgot how to be proud of achievement and became more concerned about the feelings of the loser than the accomplishment of the victor. It’s happened in almost all areas of life, but is most easily noted on the athletic field, in the classroom, and now has crept into the business and financial world.

I first noted the change on the athletic field when my kids were small, participating in league sports. When I was a kid, there were winners and losers. Trophies were awarded to the champion and perhaps the runner-up. But for my kids, everyone took home a trophy or a medal. Even the kids that came in last got to take home a medal. Somewhere we lost “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Instead we became a culture that celebrates the “thrill of participation.”

I learned a lot in athletics but a key lesson was this—I learned more from losing than winning. But even beyond, the most important lesson I learned was that I didn’t like losing! This extreme dislike made me work harder to improve, perfect, and finally accomplish.

From that spawned another lesson—I liked success. The entire crux of the matter found its summation in the most crucial lesson of all—between the reward for success and the negative feelings of failure, it didn’t take me long to realize the extra effort was worth it. Failure spurred me into high gear. No one can achieve perfection but failure drove me to deeply look at how to do things different. In this quagmire of self-examination, success begins. If the self-examination of failure is removed, accomplishment declines.

The classroom is another place I noticed this. Academically, we started celebrating mediocrity. The best example of this is the change of the bumper stickers given out to kids in school. First, we had the bumper stickers that said “My Child is an Honor Roll Student at Fiddle Faddle Middle School” but this obviously offended the non-Honor Roll student so soon the signs changed to “My Child showed Good Character at Fiddle Faddle Middle School.” I’m not knocking integrity but anyone can show good character with very little effort.

Kids that work hard today get passed over, snubbed, even dismissed because we have to lift up those that “showed up.” This is ultimately discouraging for those trying to achieve. Why do we not celebrate their success and achievement anymore?  Extra effort that leads to success was the foundation for the greatness of American achievement, but is a time-tested truth for any society that aspires to greatness. We did not succeed by celebrating mediocrity in any arena.

(Please note—I believe celebrating the Honor Roll Student is correct, but the parents should teach humility by placing the bumper sticker on the refrigerator and not on the car. That way the child has their success celebrated and is also taught the importance of caring about other’s feelings.)

Now, about the financially successful, most have worked extremely hard. They worked harder in school than most, some continued their education, and they work more hours than those who don’t succeed. Certainly we can point to other reasons for their success but largely, we make excuses for it. “They are smarter, they had more opportunities, they had a good home life.”  The real truth is we don’t like to admit someone else worked harder that we did.

But perhaps this honesty can cause us to return to the principle of hard work, learn the lessons of failure, empower our abilities, and celebrate the success of others. Let’s not settle for mediocrity. Let’s relish success and achievement. Every time I meet one of the successful I look at them with the joy of knowing with some hard work I have the same opportunity.

So where did we screw up? I think we simply forgot how to celebrate the success of others and the important lesson failure teaches. It is truly okay to have winners and losers. We are not all created equal and have different talents. But there is no denying we are each called to use our talents to the best of our ability. And this usually comes with a healthy combination of desire for success and fear of failure.

Thoughtfully,
Steve

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