It happens to all of us. We fail a test. We don’t get the girl or guy. We drop the ball, lose a job, or lose a significant amount of money.
We all lose. Even if we make all the right choices.
One of the most memorable lines of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is spoken by the character, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, when he says, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
Indeed. That is life.
Most of us take this hard, and each loss takes with it a portion of our confidence, with some shaking the very foundation of who we think we are.
But what if these losses could add to us, rather than take away? What if we could use loss to succeed?
Well, you can!
Award-winning sports journalist, Sam Weinman, in his book, “Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains,” gives readers a series of powerful testimonies to the crucial part losing plays in our lives, showing how we can turn even the worst setbacks into comebacks.
Splicing together interviews and advice from professional athletes, executives, celebrities, and politicians, and tempering that wisdom with thoughts from leading psychologists, Weinman brings us the ultimate study in what truly constitutes success.
Hint: it’s not just winning.
Weinman advocates what he calls a “growth mindset,”—realizing that we have the psychological tools that, after setbacks, can help us change how we handle problems.
He uses the example of Michael Dukakis, democrat, politician, and presidential candidate who lost to President George H. W. Bush in 1988.
But even more devastating, though, was his loss in the race for the Massachusetts governor’s office in 1978—a race he should have won. That loss was personally devastating to him—his win was assumed, and he was ahead in the polls. It seemed an easy election.
Dukakis thought this latter loss would be the end of his political career. Little did he know that he would go on to win back his previous post, becoming the longest serving governor Massachusetts had ever seen, even going on to become the chosen democratic presidential candidate ten years later.
So what was the trait that allowed Dukakis to come back to politics? When he came up against a loss, he asked himself, “What can I learn from it?” The presidential candidate wasn’t bound to what Weinman calls a “fixed mindset,” but one that could shift and change as needed.
Weinman writes that, “A fixed mindset would have taken stock of the landscape in front of him and determined the system was rigged. And he couldn’t have bared the idea of throwing himself into another campaign and losing. It would have been too much.”
And indeed, Dukakis changed when he, again, ran for the governor’s seat. Humbled by his defeat, and clearly seeing what he, politically, did wrong.
Of this, Dukakis says, “I became a much better listener, which is a much more important quality to have if you’re going to be an effective leader. I began to understand that as a governor, you can bring people together who don’t like each other, and because you’re the governor, you can sit down to work together and achieve things.”
Dukakis rode this success all the way to the front door of the white house, and although he lost his presidential bed against Bush, we can all learn something very valuable from his attitude.
Dukakis made a point to refrain from the personal attacks so common now among presidential elections, even when they were continuously hurled at him by his opponents. He continually spoke in a calm, measured voice, and his face remained composed.
Many believe that this lack of fire and ego is why he lost the election. But it isn’t, really. It’s why he, at the core of it, won.
Winning isn’t always about succeeding. Weinman, in his interview with Dukakis, asked an important question: “Is it better to be right and lose, or to be wrong and win?”
While Dukakis played to win, he did all he could to remain right. He maintained his values, but changed in ways he needed to change in order to keep going. Rather than blaming “the system,” he looked within himself to see how he could adapt and continue on—a lesson today’s politicians could use.
Psychologically, our brains benefit from mistakes, but only if we let them. In two studies that looked into what happens in people’s brains as they make mistakes, researchers found that the brain has two possible reactions.
One reaction involves the brain giving us a “wake up call,” focusing on the negative outcome of a mistake and treating it like a problem to be solved, looking at what happened, why it happened, and how it might be prevented the next time, increasing attention and focus during the next decision in order to make a good one. This is the response that helps people learn from their mistakes.
The other reaction is a simple shutdown. The brain reacts to the negative outcome as a threat, and chooses to take focus off the mistake in order to protect itself. In this case, the mistake is made again and again.
So what can we do to be more like Dukakis, taking difficult losses and learning from them rather than shutting down?
We change our reaction.
While we can’t change our personalities—some will be more prone to shutting down after negative feedback, while others will thrive and do better—we can work to alter our responses.
If you’re the type to shut down, remember this: when you make a mistake or receive negative feedback, do not panic. Breathe. Calm yourself.
Focus on the mistake, and see it for what it is—an opportunity to improve, to grow, to become better at what you do.
And those mistakes will come. Your life will be full of them.
Dukakis summed this up well, saying “Look, if you go into politics, don’t be surprised if there are at least some people who go at you critically. That’s a part of life, and you’ve got to be able to handle it.”
Indeed. That’s life. But if you can learn to mistakes as opportunities for growth, your life will be all the better for it.
You’ll learn to win by losing.