Winners and losers

“There’s something inherently disappointing about success” – WS Gilbert

In any given competition there is one winner and any number of losers, be it a job or a football title, the rest are also-rans: true or false?  Is winning at any cost the measure of success?  Gilbert surely had a point by suggesting that success is an anti-climax and that it just gives you a taste for more, but conversely the taste of not winning becomes all the more bitter when you know what it is like to win.  It has an addictive quality, and can be followed by endless disappointment, and possibly even guilt if that success were achieved at the expense of hurting others.

But we all enjoy the occasional win, especially if nobody is harmed in the process.  Admittedly some things are out of our control, so winning the lottery is not helped by greater personal effectiveness, though it’s true that in many situations almost everybody could perform better and achieve more things that matter to them, with a little self-improvement, but most people accept life’s ups and downs: “you win some, you lose some,” “swings and roundabouts” and many such sayings.

Look on Amazon: out there there are thousands of books urging us to be more competitive and targeted at changing our attitudes to be positive and defeat the opposition to whatever prize it happens to be, but almost none about dealing with failure or just being one of the crowd, jogging along with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  And let’s face it, we have to deal with not achieving our aspirations far more often than we hit the major prize.

Most people dream of being winners on at least some occasions to achieve our visions of being loved and lauded from all sides; doubtless there are a reasonable who devote every waking second to winning and hitting their criteria for success, one in which nothing less than the best will do.  Equally some will settle for a mid-table steady-as-you-go position, which is not to say they are inferior, just that they have different priorities.  We can be disappointed but bounce back in one form or another.

Learning how to deal with failure is surely the mark of a man far more than how he copes with success.

Of course, there is the argument that if we all set different goals we could all be winners, but in a success-driven culture like the US, competition is everything and accepting defeat gracefully is not acceptable to many.  No doubt many are driven to the point of insanity or suicide while others give up trying at the affront to the ego of trying hard but being beaten to the top prize.  Neither is constructive in the long-run, so finding ways to deal with that inevitability and finding other outlets to happiness on your own terms is the knack.

So the more common situation is not whether you win the top prize but how you avoid humiliation, of which football is a great example.  While only one team can win the Premier League, the success criteria have been widened such that 4 teams now qualify for European Champions League status and the accompanying financial rewards, so aiming for the top 4 is an acceptable way of atoning for failure to win the top prize, and thereby to mollify fans and directors alike.

However, the clubs at the top have, in recent years, been pretty much the same, the odd change notwithstanding.  Many lack the resources to compete effectively with the biggest clubs, so their version of success will be survival, maybe a shot at a Europa League place by finishing 5th.  But the further you get down the league, the closer you get to the slippery slope towards relegation places and the loss of PL status, which for many is their equivalent of the CL rewards.  Panic sets in: if a club has a run of bad results, even competent managers who have not had time to bring about the changes required are thrown out to try to guarantee survival.

It is crisis management at its worst, but no matter whether every club replaces its manager the fact is that three clubs will be relegated, come what may.  In half a season, 8 managers have already departed here in England, and 10 in Serie A in Italy, where results apparently matter even more.  In the same way, no matter how many high-fliers we have in society, there will always be a need for someone to do the cleaning and the caring, the shitty low-paid jobs that are as or often more worthy but are rewarded with buttons.

While success might be desirable, fear of failure would appear to be a stronger motivational force.  The fear of ritual humiliation and loss of face is far greater than the desire to win, which may explain why we are as a culture generally risk-averse, all the more so since the banking crisis.  After all, banking culture pre-crash was one of winning at all costs, taking huge risks and subverting regulations to come ahead of the competition.  The result was measured in the failure or near-failure of banks across the world and subsequent bail-outs by governments everywhere, something that not too long ago would not have been deemed remotely conceivable.

There is a balance to be struck, one in which winning at all costs is as bad as inability to achieve anything you want, one where we take an equitable view that the best man got the girl, job, whatever on merit, but that we can find something appropriate to us without hurting anyone else in the process.  We can be confident in ourselves as individuals, being sure that we each have a unique blend of skills and talents to find a niche that works for us.

Shame then that so many people give up and accept something less than be best, be it a low-paid job that makes them unhappy, a partner they don’t love or anything other than a strong fit to their dreams and aspirations.  Perhaps if the rewards of society were given on the basis of value and worth rather than being weighted heavily towards competitive supply and demand that balance might be easier to achieve?

Remember that at one time team ethos meant that “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part“?  We seem to have lost that philosophy entirely, and not for the better.  Competition may have its place, but collaboration and valuing each contribution is much more likely to make us all winners.  Win:win, not win:lose.

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