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.


Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for following my blog, my friend! I hope your visits in my blog have been and will always be an enjoyable experience!

    I’ve been enjoying yours so please keep sharing and keep inspiring! 🙂

    Subhan Zein

    • Subhan,
      I know you’ve been following me for some time and I really appreciate all your visits and “Likes”. It’s taking time to get around to reading all my followers and responding. I really liked yours and wanted to reciprocate.
      I’m impressed with what you’ve accomplished in your young years. I’m sure your success did not come easy and took all the things this post on success is about. Congratulations to you for persistence and hard work. Keep it up!
      I’m glad my blog is inspiring to you. There’s more great stuff coming.
      Keep commenting and keep in touch.

  2. Brian

     /  July 4, 2012

    All so very sad…..and very true. This attitude of there “being no losers” has also led to the entitlement mentality that i witnessed joining the ranks of the Navy at the end of my career. It’s a downward spiral that can only be stopped by parents countering these lies each and every time they show their face. With diligence and prayer, we can stop it.

    • Brian,
      I like the fact you called them lies, for that is what they are. Truth always trumps lies, but truth must be spoken and applied. This post is exactly about that. Most of the time truth is bitter to swallow but must be faced, then lived out. 
      Are we doing our kids any justice by soothing their emotions and removing the lessons of failure? It’s hard to watch them endure this lesson but what joy we gain watching them make different choices next time around, and succeed. 
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have more posts like this coming. I hope to hear from you again. 

  3. I so agree with this. The entitlement issue is what was born of this new way of doing things. It’s supposed to be all about building self esteem in children who otherwise have none, however, it whittles away at the self esteem of the child that is a super achiever. Why put the effort into being a super achiever if everyone wins when it’s all said and done. What happens is the children grow up expecting to be a winner whether they put any effort forward at all or not. You really see it once they enter the work force.

    This was a great post. I’ve seen this for years as you have and have really seen the end result because of it. I remember the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat commercials without even looking at the video and they were awe inspiring. We’ve all lost a piece of that competitive edge because of this change.

  4. I agree. Winning is a motivator to be better, to work harder, to give our best. We need to encourage the new generation to strive in all that they do. We need to prepare them for the real world because the real world is not as generous and forgiving. Failure is a reality and all of us may experience them one day. Truth hurts but will prove helpful in the end. Great post.

    • You are very right. I like your phrase “strive in all they do”, which conveys the pursuit of excellence. Excellence applies to all, no matter their gifts and talents. If they are using everything to their best of their own ability, then they are a success in their own right. Yes, they will not always win or be the top of everything but they will live with passion and inspiration. When failure and disappointment hit, however, we can teach them the deep lesson of changing the strategy, working harder, studying more, whatever it takes to improve. How many stories have we heard of how failure proved to be the best thing that ever happened to someone? Yes, truth hurts, but it’s a good hurt and so helpful, as you say.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  5. katarzyna00

     /  July 18, 2012

    Great post. I risk sounding redundant but I think this makes some great points. Life is full of disappointments and failures and it is important to equip children with the tools to deal with it when that happens. By protecting them from anything bad that could ever happen we miss out on a great opportunity to teach them important life lessons.

    • You can never overstate the importance of this lesson. It’s great to articulate the meaning for yourself, which is never redundant.
      You have summed up some key points. I like your point about “equipping” our children. That’s part of our goal as parents—to equip them for all life has to offer, both success and disappointment.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  6. You have some really good articles here, and so original. This is so true mediocracy is being awarded now, it makes zero sense. My problem is I have such a fear of failure, that I get too nervous and give up. Guess been turned down too many times here lately, things do not come as easily to me now as when I was in my twenties. Seems like in my twenties I could do anything I wanted, and be successful. Now, it seems society shuts the door because no longer a size 2. Thank you for this article and motivation!

  7. This post brought about many thoughts that rolled around in my brain for several days, and the commercial I referred to in the comments of the above post. Your post made me realize that now in the workforce and in general the above teachings have made people unable to cope with constructive critisism or feedback. For example, in the workforce (as we discussed in the link above). The teachings have created generations of people who are unable to cope with the truth.

    Reminds me of a movie, cannot remember the title, but there is a famous phrase in the movie, that went something like this:

    “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth!”

    The teachings in your post above have actually brough about another phase to the upcoming generations, that doesn’t allow them to handle the truth.

    Your post above could actually be a report or even a small book, due to all of the issues created by such teachings. The doctrine being implemented is bringing about many changes in the culture of America. I have noticed a change in the social aspects, economical, and even moral values due to this doctrine being pushed on the children of the United States.

    • Excellent commentary, Liz. In a recent discussion with a colleague about the current work ethic among this “everyone is a winner” generation, he was told if the goal takes a lot of work or it doesn’t come easy then the goal must be “wrong”.
      And that is definitely a tragic untruth.
      I agree with you about the workforce. Constructive criticism is very unwelcome.

  8. Wow, I cannot believe a person was actually taught to believe that anything that is hard must be wrong. It’s exactly the opposite:

    “Anything worth doing, is hard”

    Not sure of the quote author, but it is a very true quote. The outcomes of these doctrines that are pushed on the kids all through school will be seen for years to come, I have had several experiences. I don’t know if you read the story about the young girl I was training, it refers to this exact issue, before I even read this post — going to have to come back and give the link, pretty interesting true story about an event that happened to my at work due to a person raised with these ideals you stated above in your comment.

  9. Don’t typically backlink in comments to my own site (due to blogging ettiquette) but this is a true story of how I was completely manipulated out of my favorite job by a very young woman that was brought up with the idea that everything should be handed to her on a platter, with zero hard work. The story is true (although crazy), and an example of what our future in the workforce may look like.
    http://awomeninherthirties.com/2012/08/09/2935/ (Saboteur aka Manipulator post)

    • Liz,
      I will get back with you soon as I can on this. I am in an area of poor connection for a day or so.
      I really appreciate you taking the time to think and comment on this topic.
      I look forward to reading your post.

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