Wednesday, February 25

Why Some So-Called Losses Are Really Wins In Disguise

My son had been staying after school for months, hoping to land one of 14 spots on the junior varsity volleyball team. It seemed like the ideal spring sport for him to balance out football in the fall.

He worked hard at it whenever possible, missing only one practice since the intramural pre-tryout program had begun. He was a dedicated player and progressed at a faster pace than most of his peers. When you asked any of them, they expected to be cut well before him. Except, they weren't cut.

In what seemed to be a split decision among the coaches, he finished one or two spots short out of the 30 some kids who were vying for a position. Even after one of the coaches told him coldly that he was "athletic, but not for volleyball," another coach openly disagreed and told him to come out next year.

Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. His more immediate challenge was that he had missed all the mandatory meetings for any other spring sports. It's a tough spot to be in, something long-time marketer and author Geoff Livingston described as being the "first loser." It sucks to be thisclose to a win.

Our compulsion to tally up wins and losses feeds an unproductive fantasy.

For some people, wins and losses can be very real. You either pass an exam or you don't. You win the state championship or you don't. You are hired for the position or you aren't. So on and so forth.

But mostly, our incessant need to make tally marks in the win/loss column is all a bunch of rubbish. One exam isn't a measure of subject mastery. The final score isn't an adequate measure of true performance. The position you're passed over for might be turn out to be your biggest win ever. 

The point here is pretty simple. Not only does our overemphasis on any given win or loss become a distraction from some yet-to-be-seen success, we tend to frame them all up with too much idealism. You see, winning doesn't mean everything will end well any more than losing means that you have something more to learn. Either outcome can produce the opposite of whatever it is you are looking for in the long term and you may never really know what that other outcome might have been.

As the old saying ought to go, the only thing worse than losing an account is winning a bad one. Bad accounts can burn up time with unrealistic service demands or relentless change orders, cost a company its solvency with late payments or by defaulting on any credit, and damage reputations by underplaying contributions or making vendors scapegoats for their bad decisions. They can make you crazy trying to keep them, sometimes at the expense of any underperforming but stable clients. So who knows? Maybe the universe did you a favor by spinning the wheel of fortune one spoke short.

As long as you keep doing, you will eventually have your fair share of wins and losses. And with any luck, the balance among all of them — and the real outcomes to follow — will one day amount to a legacy that you can pay forward. Because that, not any tiny win or loss, is what life is really about.

The best thing that never happened to my son was making that team. 

In less than 24 hours after being turned away from the volleyball team, my son received an unexpected text from one of his friends. While all the mandatory meetings for track had passed, the team was still looking for a few athletes to try pole vaulting. He was unsure, but undeterred.

When my son turned out on a day that the pole vaulting coach didn't make it, he asked to the practice with the shot put throwers instead. Three throws later, the shot put coach signed him to the team. Despite never having tried it before, the coach noted his perfect form and throwing potential. Now he's weighing whether he should focus exclusively on shot put or try pole vaulting too. 

Either way is a win-win decision for him. The fact that he has this decision to make tells a story that is very different from the one that opened this post. When he didn't land a spot on the junior varsity volleyball team, it opened up the opportunity for him to land a variety spots on the track team.

So was the set up really a loss? Or was it a win? Or does it merely prove one of my friend's favorite quotes that attitude is superior to circumstance? I don't know, but I'm leaning toward the latter. Losing assumes one has something to lose and most people don't. We either set out to win or merely break even. So just keep doing as long as you are happy in the pursuit of it. Being able to pursue it is the win.
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