Of Winners and Losers

In my travels around the world, I've met with lots of people who describe their wins and losses in their business, career, and personal arenas. I divide them into two groups.
11/12/2012 01:23 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Phew. The political TV and advertisements have stopped. So have the "robocalls." Best of all, the political commercials are off the air now. What's left in the wake of the elections are winners and losers. Which is exactly what political elections produce. Ditto for the personal campaigns that play out in our careers, family lives, and relationships. While the outcome sometimes result in "ties" and "runoffs," more often we either bask in the sweet glow of victory or slink back in our Monday morning quarterback chairs, wondering what we could have done differently.

In my travels around the world, I've met with lots of people who describe their wins and losses in their business, career, and personal arenas. I divide them into two groups. In one corner, we have the "woe" folks who are embittered by defeat and grasp at anything that might explain their losses (usually ignoring the obvious culprit, the one in the mirror). In the other corner, we have the "wow" folks who understand that winning and losing define each other, like yin and yang. They understand that you can only win by occasionally losing, and that no one zooms straight to the top. They understand, too, who ultimately has responsibility for the win or the loss.

In my private dictionary, I define "woe" ("What On Earth") as playing the role of helpless victim and blaming the world for our losses, and "wow" ("Wonderfully Obsessed with Winning") as playing the role of triumphant victor and doing what it takes to prove it is so.

Sadly, there are more people in the woe corner than in the wow corner. I think this is so for two reasons. The first relates to human nature, and it comes down to this: Losing is no fun. No matter how you spin it, failure means pain and suffering. Our bodies are exquisitely designed to avoid pain, so "woe" becomes a great bulletproof vest.

Even battle-worn businesspeople who can afford a "hit" experience the pain of loss and failure. I personally have experienced a highly successful business career. But I've sure had inevitable and painful failures because of miscalculations, foolish decisions, and bad bets that quashed deals and cost me money. Like my short-lived California real estate project, the biggest I'd ever launched, which was reduced to rubble by an earthquake before the insurance kicked in. Or the would-be local entrepreneur who relieved me of $50,000 before I realized that he was a compulsive gambler. Sure, I learned a lot from those experiences, but I'd be lying if I said that each failure felt better because I learned from it, ready to step up to the plate again, this time a little smarter. Believe me, it's easy to wallow in the woe corner.

The second reason for the overabundance of woe types has more to do with the culture today: So many of us have come to believe that we're entitled to be a winner just for showing up. Just look at youth sports programs that give out trophies to every participant -- regardless of how his or her team performed -- just to make the players feel good. These are the same kids who grow up insulated from the real world of winning and losing. (For more on this issue, see Lori Gottlieb's July 2011 article in The Atlantic Monthly, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.")

In the game of life, there are winners and losers. Period. You don't get a trophy from the business world if you try but don't deliver; in fact, you often get your butt kicked by many different shoes. And if you haven't been raised to deal with the pain of rejection, your self-esteem may deflate like a balloon, taking you on an express ride to the woe corner.

So how do we go from the woe side to the wow side? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. When you lose, don't deny or sugarcoat the pain. But do learn to correct. Then forget the failure promptly.

  • Make sure you don't set yourself up to repeat history. Nobody loses all the time -- unless they keep doing the same dumb mistakes repeatedly. If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got.
  • Look forward. As entrepreneur Howard Tullman put it in an Inc. magazine column, "Who said failure is fashionable? Frankly, it sucks." "If you're worrying about the past, you've got a good chance of screwing up the future. You can't water yesterday's crops. So move on."
  • Finally, remember this: Failure may not be a welcome teacher or your new best friend. But if you look at it as the flip side of winning and you can wring out a few truths from each flop, you just might make it from woe to wow.

    For more by Rob White, click here.

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