01/14/2015 03:01 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

How Losing Helps You Win

The misguided self-esteem movement began with the best intentions. In the 1990s, a group of California-based psychologists recognized a link between self-esteem and successful students. They erroneously came to the conclusion that high self-esteem led to success. The self-esteem movement was born and transformed the way adults interact with children.

To increase self-esteem, teachers and parents were told to praise whatever students did and to make excuses for failure. Competition and ranking were eliminated from classrooms and everyone on the sports field received a trophy. All they had to do was show up. The goal was to make children feel good about themselves and, of course, to build their self-esteem.

This "everyone is a winner" mentality has been proven wrong again and again. It turns out that self-esteem isn't a precursor of success; it comes from navigating one's way through setbacks, learning from failure and having the grit to persevere. In a New York Times article "Losing is Good for You," Ashley Merriman, author of Nutureshock, writes:

When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children's lives.

One strategy to overcome the Trophy Industrial Complex is to encourage healthy competition. This is not an oxymoron. Competition can bring out the best in both children and adults.

One of my favorite examples is the relationship between Braque and Picasso. They were simultaneously friends and competitors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's extraordinary Cubism exhibit beautifully captures their friendly rivalry. From 1909 to 1911 they spent almost every evening together. As Picasso described:

Each of us HAD to see what the other had done during the day. We criticized each other's work. A canvas wasn't finished until both of us felt it was.

They spent the summer of 1912 in the South of France. Braque waited for Picasso to return to Paris before incorporating the fake wood wallpaper he had found at a nearby shop into his work. The series of "faux-bois" collages represented a turning point in Cubism. Picasso was awed and inspired when he finally had the opportunity to see them. As Braque describes:

After having made the papier collé, I felt a great shock and it was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him.

As Braque and Picasso's relationship highlights, healthy competition can inspire and motivate greatness.

Bottom line: Embrace quality competitors who push you to the limit.

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