How to be the Best Loser You Can Be
Coming on the heels of recent topics such as not meeting our expectations and how to handle disappointment, it only seemed natural and right to address this crowd favourite: losing.
“You lost.” “I lost.” “We lost.” This is one of the hard truths in sport, certainly, where the outcome is generally immediate and apparent for all to see. Even in kids’ sports, when well-meaning parents and officials design expunge the score from children's sport experiences in an effort to save our children from life’s presumed harsher realities, we know that at least a portion of our children keep score and know the outcome. To compete, apparently, is to be human.
Moreover, if you define losing as the Cambridge dictionary does, that it’s a failure to succeed or win, then the chances are that you will lose way more than you will win. Sport is one of those zero-sum affairs. Only one person or team can win in a given competition. Everyone else is, therefore by dictionary definition, a loser.
In other domains such as medicine, however, it’s less zero-sum and more about the success and failure of any given procedure (if you’re a surgeon) or the soundness and accuracy of any diagnosis and treatment (if you’re a general practitioner). In business, it’s about being rejected at interview, failing to persuade, or losing business to a competitor.
In the end, it would generally seem that losing is about not getting your desired outcome, and the more you invest in the journey to win, the harder losing is to take.
But it's precisely those wins that we risk things for that are so often the most important and fulfilling. If we want to win big--in love, sport, or in in just about any field of endeavour--it stands to reason that we should be learning about how to help ourselves cope well with loss.
To be clear, I am not selling a strategy, advanced typically by people who claim to hate losing, of getting good at losing by settling for it as the inevitable outcome. That school of thought goes something like this: either you are a winner (and you hate losing and losers) or you are a loser (and are weak). I advocate for the middle way. We learn to accept that losing is part of the game. We understand, to get good at winning over the long-term, that when we fail, we fail fast, learn hard, and get back up better after the loss. Ready faster and with less angst for the next Big Risk Worth Taking.
What happens when we lose?
We lose out. In sport as in job interviews, the long person or team doesn’t get the congratulations, the recognition, or the winnings. There’s a vacuum of stuff. Instead, nice people commiserate with us in our loss, offer their condolences, and our efforts and character are highlighted. Moreover, we are taught to avoid being sore losers, so we have to act accordingly.
That’s what loss looks like on the outside. On the inside, it turns out that we dislike loss about twice as much as we like the same amount of success. If we lose $1000, for example, it takes a windfall of $2000 for us to feel like we come out even. This outsized aversion to loss, first discovered by psychologists Kahnmann and Tversky in 1979, refers to individuals’ tendencies, as mapped by brain imaging and captured in self-report, to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Losing is so aversive, that we’d rather just not lose even more than we want to win!
Our reaction to loss is also influenced by our previous histories, how much power/resources we have, and our cultural conditioning. If we have a history of success, a single loss is generally easier to absorb (except in those rare cases when we have never experienced it before). Wealthy people take a monetary loss easier than people on the other end of the financial scale. For people from collective cultures like the Far East and Africa, where life is more about the group than the individual, one person’s loss is more easily absorbed by the group. Conversely, in cultures where individualism is prized over the collective, you are, as they say, on your own to win…or lose. And losing alone is harder than losing in the company of supportive others.
So we come by the outsized pain of loss honestly. All that means is that becoming more effective at it takes work and points to the need to look at loss differently.
When we lose, what can we gain?
We can gain perspective about ourselves. Loss can force us to look at ourselves differently. This is not easy, as in doing so, our ego—our sense of self—can take a hit. We thought we were good enough to win, but we were wrong. In the aftermath of a loss, or even making a mistake, our human tendency is to think that we are somehow uniquely a loser or uniquely bad. The worst in the world. The antidote, according to self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, is to note that so many others have experienced something similar. That although we lost, we are certainly not alone, and it is highly likely that others have lost in similar ways, and some even more spectacularly. This shift in perspective—from me to we—can create both a healthy sense of common humanity and shrink our individual ego in the process.
We can make space for something different. Losing, so much more than winning, tells us that the status quo, what we did to get here, may not have been enough. It is often said, however, that to do more, we have to first figure out what to do less of, or even give up. The risk, of course, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so loss does not necessarily mean wholesale changes, but oftentimes, it steers us to the things we always knew we needed to do, but didn’t. Efforts we weren’t willing to make. Risks we weren’t willing to take. Things we are still doing that are not serving us anymore.
We can learn to care less about winning….and losing This idea gets us back to focusing on what we can influence in any endeavour worth taking on. Both the want of winning and the fear of losing, while potentially motivating in the everyday environment of getting things done, do little for us when we are in the moment of performing. Be it a job interview or a big competition, it’s about what your job is in that moment that is the thing. The question you are thoughtfully answering, the hard effort you are making, the technique you are executing. If you do all of that, while allowing the outcome to come to you (instead of the other way around), you increase the chances of the outcome you care less about.
If coping with failure--or your fear of it--is getting in the way of your better performances, I can help.
Don't forget to ping me with any questions related to making performance more frictionless. I'd love to have a crack!!
P.S. There are still spaces left in my online course, High Performance From the Inside Out, starting March 2023 (dates TBC). Take charge of your own well-being and build your resilience with a group of like-minded others. Book your free call here to learn more.
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org