Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Learning from losing)

There are a lot of truths in this world, relayed to us at varying volume levels and frequencies. Some of the most interesting or illuminating, however, are uttered so rarely or so quietly that they almost go unnoticed. In business, one of the great taboos is losing. We regularly hear that it is not an option, unthinkable, a sign of deplorable weakness and so on. Much less often do we hear that it is a natural occurrence: despite the parable of The Midas Touch (and King Midas seems to have had more than one problem with being unable to control either his wishes or his mouth), our desire for invincibility and endless glory shouts louder than our counselling wisdom. And that quietness conceals something else: that losing can be a great teacher, but you have to learn how to be a good loser to make the most of the opportunity.

If you’re not suffering terminal Apprentice fatigue (and I may be in mortal danger, after reviewing the whole series), the final delivered one interesting lesson: that the contender who loses best can be the winner. Having been on the losing team many times, we can perhaps argue that Ricky Martin was a man who had had plenty of practice. But then again, practice makes perfect: Mr Martin may not have racked up 10,000 hours of losing – if we accept Malcolm Gladwell’s recipe for mastery – but he’d grasped the ideas of learning from mistakes, reviewing personal expectations and managing those of others, and something close to the idea of purposeful practice in honing efforts on specific areas to improve performance.

He had another point in his favour too, and one illustrated by a quote from an US President who left one of history’s most ambiguous legacies, Richard Nixon:

You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing. But the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not his victorious opponents or on his teammates.”

Exploring the idea of losing, it’s interesting that a lot of the examples that are easiest to unearth come from either politicians or sportsmen. Politics and sport may be every bit as competitive as modern business, but they are also worlds where results are publicly displayed in table form in print and online. Unlike business people, football teams or political parties can’t so easily hide behind assertions like ‘As one of the world’s leading …’: the detail of their actual performance is out there to be found and read.

The ‘losing is not an option’ pathological table-thumper posture being less readily available – or less credible – for them, they find themselves saying things about losing that the business world might find harder. Another politician who left the world an ‘interesting’ legacy – Tony Blair – provides an example:

Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.”

There’s an echo in there of a lovely quote – “Winning is nice if you don’t lose your integrity in the process” – that might be cited more regularly, had it not been spoken by a character in a 1970s US sitcom (Welcome Back, Kotter). It’s also interesting that the competitive arenas of politics and sport seem to take a less gladiatorial view of handling loss than business. Compare the following two quotations:

  • Winning is not enough. All others must lose.”
  • No matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.”

The first – in which success doesn’t count as victory unless everyone else is defeated – belongs to Larry Ellison, a businessman, while the second belongs to Al Gore, a politician. There’s an interesting argument that runs to the effect that, had Al Gore, been victorious in the 2000 US Presidential election, his subsequent prominence in environmentalist circles and causes might never have been achieved, although his record before 2000 suggests more that he put some unexpected spare time to effective use. Whether this work classifies as ‘letting the glory out’ depends on your position on the climate debate.

(And, on the subject of losing, memories of Al Gore and losing probably inextricably involve the ‘hanging chads’ of disputed votes in Florida and elsewhere. You might want to read an article at Slate magazine about the 1960 US Presidential election, where it was argued at the time that Nixon was similarly ‘cheated’.)

When it comes to losing well, the world of sports may actually have the most to teach us. Given that sport is the main human arena to readily accept that even people that are already talented performers can benefit from the input of coaches, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. And perhaps our kneejerk perception of people who hit, kick or chase things as being less intelligent or insightful needs examination too. You’d think, for example, that HR Departments would be more technologically savvy and diligent, although recent events at Aviva – where a redundancy email got sent to 1,299 more people than intended – might suggest otherwise. (Given that, within a month, Aviva’s proud use of IT systems and quality assurance testing were subject of not one but two articles in Computer Weekly, we can assume only that the company learns its lessons not just proudly but very quickly.)

Sport may come with its own clichés about being a game of two halves – indeed, I quite easily found a whole web-page full of them – but it’s a world that recognises losing happens and we might as well grow up and get over it. Rory McIlroy was admirably adult about his past failures in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix sports blog, acknowledging that:

Everyone is going to have bad days, if it’s on a golf course or on a basketball court […] And with sports these days everything is overanalyzed, stats here, stats there, how has your team combined points in the last quarter of the Finals or whatever. If people keep talking about having a bad last quarter all the time, it’s going to sort of get to you.”

Canadian journalist Dave Badini makes that last point from a different direction in another article about the benefits of losing, written for The National Post. (He’s writing, we should note, about the Canadian junior national hockey team losing: the cultural equivalent of this in the UK is probably something akin to the football, rugby and cricket teams losing simultaneously, with the players that defeated them then taking turns to moon at the royal box.) The critical point lies in the response to losing – the choice between:

a) getting over the emotional impact, taking the lessons on board, and getting back on your metaphorical bike
b) crumbling (or ‘choking’ in sports terminology) or getting angry or bitter.

There’s a rather lovely piece on the Daily Telegraph website about sportsmanship that captures one aspect of this:

The bad loser, the worst bad sport of the lot, has become part of the furniture of modern sport. In our super-competitive times, people are desperate to win, even if it means winning ugly; and for a life skill that 99 per cent of us are going to need, the art of losing well, with grace and dignity, is largely neglected. Self-improvement manuals spur us on to success – at chess, at skiing, at judo, at badminton. But where is the manual telling us how to conduct ourselves if success eludes us and we have to settle for second best?”

I couldn’t help but notice that the author identified ‘losing well’ not just as something inevitably required of 99% of us but as a life skill. (Sport – like business – does take part within life, rather than as some semi-detached adjunct to it, even if some people need reminding of that in both instances.) That seemed to be a point not lost on one of the commenters on Dave Badini’s article, who I suspect might have been reading Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity (read our review) and remembering some of his points about an inflated sense of entitlement being the quintessential modern human condition:

The self-entitlement is so great in this country, many are ready to claim greatness earned by previous generations without having to work for it, and then getting mad at others when they rightfully take away their win. Canada needs to lose until it truly learns humility.”

Of course, the comment leaver may have been over-reacting as hissily as many a defeated team or player, amateur or professional, but I still think that word ‘humility’ deserves a moment’s thought. Learning that you still have things to learn is one of life’s great lessons, and leaves you more perceptive to future learning than an attitude that says – no doubt rather loudly – that you woz robbed.

Most of us will be a loser from time to time, and we should welcome the experience as a reality check that spares us from undue complacency, and reminds there are usable metals beyond the ones that get made into medals. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote in The Gondoliers:

The end is easily foretold,
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care–
Up goes the price of shoddy.”

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