August 20, 2015

How to make a loser

Here’s a confession: I am an incredibly competitive person. Probably to an unhealthy degree.

I despise failure. I detest it. I cannot handle anything less than a win, anything less than, occasionally, perfection. Whenever I cook a meal and serve it to people, there is this churning desire in the back of my head to throw it right in the garbage and start all over again and make everyone wait, because I really could have done it better. I have very little desire to play sports or gamble, because then my ability to succeed would depend on other people or random chance, which, to me, is unacceptable. The idea of having someone else screw up my chance to win makes the entire game no fun.

Well, that’s not true. The game, for me, was never fun to begin with.

Here’s a story: when I was first dating my wife, my in-laws had just purchased a Wii. We’d play games as a family on the Wii, mostly MarioKart, but also WiiMusic and Carnival Games – the latter, I think, came with the Wii itself.

I was okay at the Carnival Games. You played a bunch of different kinds of games, darts or basketball or water pistols, and everyone was good at one or two games but no one was good at all of them.

Until one day, when I had to watch my in-laws’ dogs. And then I sat down and practiced every single carnival game, until I could play each one perfectly, which took about five or six hours.

The next time we sat down to play as a family, it was a lot less fun for everyone else. Because I won every single game.

That was okay, though. It was never fun for me. If there’s a chance I can lose, it’s not fun. And there’s always a chance.

***

I recognize that my allergy to failure is a failure in itself. I also recognize that, sadly, it might just be genetic.

I say this because now I have my own son, who is just as if not more competitive than I am.

This is a child who, like his dear ol’ dad, mentally cannot handle the anguish of being anything less than the best. This is a 4 year old who sits down with a Lego set for ages 7-14, and just assumes he’ll be able to figure it all out, and absolutely loses it when he can’t. This is a kid who has to angrily remind everyone in a goofy game of Monkey in the Middle where no one is keeping score that yes, actually, there are teams, and not only is he on the winning team but the other team has zero points. This is a child who, when he was two and a half, pulled a full-on McEnroe on the neighborhood tennis court when he was unable to hit the ball back to us on his very first try – the very first time he’d swung a tennis racket in his life.

This is a child who cannot accept failure under any conditions. And some parents out there, the ones who value a child devoted to winning, might think that this is good – that it’s good to have someone who’s willing to fight so savagely to win.

But I know it’s a weakness. Because if you value victory so much, and cannot tolerate the idea of not having it, then there’s a good chance that you don’t practice and practice until you’re better at it – rather, you just don’t play at all.

Why play if you’re not going to win? Not winning is unacceptable. So it’d be better not to try than be a loser.

***

I’m writing this because I read this very touching essay called “Fuck Winning” over at Deadspin about  NFL player James Harrison, who made his sons return a participation trophy because they weren’t really winners. It ends with this paragraph:

…my sons are now sitting next to each other on the couch, watching a movie on TV and muttering conspiratorially in their little gremlin voices about what they are seeing and drinking juice boxes I will later find on the floor next to the trash can. Before I became a parent, I sometimes felt bad about all the time I spent doing pretty much exactly this with my brother when we were kids: I wished I’d been motivated—or that someone had motivated me—to spend my time learning useful things, practicing valuable skills, acquiring discipline and applying myself toward a more successful and accomplished future. Toward competing and triumphing. That is stupid. No one has ever accomplished anything more worth having than the moments little kids steal away from the big grown-up world, together; when they wall out all of our sad hypocrisies and fucked-up values and grotesque striving, illuminate a little world for each other, and fill it with their easy goodwill and eagerness to participate.

The trophy to give back is the one they get for winning. It is worse than worthless.

I sympathize a lot with this essay. But it misses a key point that I think is worth exploring.

Our culture loves a winner, and it hates losers. It hates failure even more than I do.

But you don’t actually learn much from success, from victory. Success is not educational, whereas failure very much is.

 Take a moment out of your day to listen to this 7 minute radio bit from two psychologists, Two Guys on Your Head, about why failure makes you a better person.

One of their central talking points is that success is often attributable to a multitude of factors – timing, background, inspiration, preparation, experience, and so on – whereas failure is usually only attributable to a few. When you screw up, you can see that if you’d just done these two or three things differently, the outcome would have been totally different. 

Failure is a much, much better learning experience than success is. Failure is, in many ways, the instructions to life, doled out to you in tiny, painful increments. To quote a recent Silicon Valley mogul, “If you’re not failing at something, you aren’t trying anything new.”

Failure is a part of innovation. Failure is a form of progress. Failure is not only ubiquitous in the everyday world – it is vital. It is the fuel on which progress runs.

So it’s deeply troubling to me to see ourselves telling our kids that winning is important, that winning is the goal, and if you don’t win you don’t get to walk away feeling happy with yourself. It troubles me to see us proposing that life is this binary state, where there are those that have won and have something to show for it, and those that have lost and have nothing as a result. I’m not saying we should go nuts and give kids a medal just for showing up and farting around. But I’m worried that we’re teaching them that failure is something to be worried of, to be scared of, a horrible thing to avoid at all costs.

There’s no avoiding failure. It’ll happen to you, eventually. And the goal of education is to prepare you so that, when it does happen – and it will! – you’ll be able to learn from it.

***

I read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to my son for the first time last night.

Man, I was sick of that book when I graduated college. Every time my school (whichever it was at the moment) wanted to recognize that we were growing up or moving on – going from fourth grade to fifth grade, or even graduating high school – they’d trot it out and read it to us, trying not to cry.

It got old. It got trite. It got predictable.

And then when I read it to my kid last night, I realized, wow, actually, there are a lot of serious truth bombs in this book. “They were trying to warn me about all the shit that was gonna happen to me!” I thought. “Why didn’t I listen to this fucking book?”

Even though it’s a kids’ book, it’s brutally honest. Take these lines:

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t.
Because, sometimes they won’t.

I’m afraid that sometimes
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

What Dr. Seuss is capturing here, as every reasonable adult reading this knows, is reality, in all its frank brutality. As someone who’s had a lot of books fail, I know it’s my reality.

It’s definitely not the reality we’re preparing kids for by teaching them a winning-is-everything mentality. Because odds are, for most of your life, you’ll be failing. And if you’re not prepared to accept that, then that’s when you’ll be a real loser.

James Harrison and all the other people ranting about “entitlement culture” can stick it. I think I’ll keep Oh the Places You’ll Go! on hand a lot for my son’s childhood.