Winning isn’t everything

I’ve often wondered where our urge to win stems from. What prompts us to want to come first? Why is coming second or third not good enough?

As a kid, I was always taught that winning isn’t everything and yet when it came to class tests or sports meets, my parents would set the bar so high that, sometimes, it was almost impossible to reach.

As an abstract concept it worked well, but in reality, not so much.

When the report card came, instead of congratulating me on scoring 92 percent in the finals, my dad would ask, “Who came first?” followed by “How could she score 95 percent and you couldn’t?”

Dejected and teary-eyed I’d head to my room.

Later I would be taken out to dinner as a “treat” and mom and dad would look proudly at me, encouraging me to study harder, nudging me to go that extra mile.

I was a bright kid — they didn’t want to see my talent go waste. And they knew that out in the world, coming first was going to get me places. No one cared if you were one of the top three, let alone the top five, they reasoned.

Some children cheated — took little “chits” to class, had their art projects completed by their moms, indirectly bribed the teachers.

Because winning meant too much.

And since everyone was doing it, it was somehow justified.

So much for the mandatory moral science classes all of us attended.

I was too self-righteous. And my mom was too busy.

Most of all, I couldn’t lie to myself.

Because at the end of the day, all said and done, you might have good grades on paper, but in your heart you know you’re a failure. You may have it but you know you didn’t deserve it.

I didn’t want sleepless nights.

I knew my parents had a lot of expectations from me, but I had decided early on that my best is all I could give it. And if it wasn’t good enough to earn me the best spot then so be it.

Even today I see my friends urge their toddlers to out run each other, to come first, to be better … nay, to be the best.

Because what good is second-best?

And every time someone says, “it’s all about participation,” or “it’s all about having fun” — they’re perceived as talking to the losers’ club.

But isn’t that really the essence of competitions? The ability to show one’s mastery over a subject or a sport with the help of an opponent? About enjoying yourself?

It’s not about showing the world that you’re the best, it’s about being the best you can be. There’s a distinct difference between the two.

That’s not how the world works, though.

Winning and cheating go hand-in-hand. We learn that there are moral, social, economic repercussions for those who cheat; that those people pay somehow, some time, somewhere…but when we look around us we find them getting better grades, more money, more power.

The hunger to win feeds corruption. It brings out not only the best, but also the worst in us.

Think about it the next time you feel dejected about your (or your children’s) less-than-desirable performance report.

If you gave it your best shot, be content.

This is an abstraction that when applied in reality will serve you well.

Read David’s well-written post on the same subject, especially the study [PDF] he refers to about bronze medal winners in the Olympics who were “simply happy to have received any honors at all (instead of no medal for fourth place).”

In the end it’s all about perception — the one you have of your self outweighs what anyone else thinks of you.

Go get ’em, tiger!

 

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Winning isn’t everything

  1. I think that people sometimes get confused between winning and surviving. Winning isn’t everything but surviving is.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Hari.
      Winning was equal to survival in prehistoric times. Nowadays, the general consensus in the world of sports at least (now that winning isn’t exactly equal to survival) is that second best doesn’t count. I guess it has more to do with entertainment than anything else — how else would we take sides, root and spend so much money and time debating strategies? But when this mentality, which may be ok for a “pastime,” percolates to other facets of life and winning becomes the paramount thing, I think that’s where the problem lies. Winning sucks, I think, because it means someone has to lose (not necessarily die).

  2. Tulika

    Mansi,

    Despite being a new and late admission in her curent school, when my daughter received ‘Excellence in English Recitation’ award on her Annual Day last year, I was beyond myself. Here she was, my little princess, getting an honour that was truly hers, for I had not really worked with her to expect it. It was a PLEASANT surprise. As I basked in her glory, I overheard the mom of the ‘All Rounder’ proudly tell the Principal, “My child had promised me she would win this award this time and look, she’s done it!” I was astounded, how could a five year old possibly make a promise like that? Obviously, it was the mother who had pushed her into it!
    Despite having grown up the way you did, Mansi…I try hard not to impose marks or grades on my daughter. That she’s bright, is another thing …but even the brightest can crumble under too much pressure…

    • Well said, Tulika. It’s harder as a parent and I applaud you for holding back the urge to push her into proving herself constantly. All of us turned out ok…who cares now what percentage we scored in school? What matters is what we made of our lives…what we continue to do with it…

  3. I was always content being the second best.. weird na? More than winning or being successful one should think of being happy.. this is what i believe in and follow.

  4. Uma

    Yes agree with you Mansi, I too grew up the same way…infact I remember there was this one time in mussoorie when my parents had come visiting me and took melanie and me out for lunch, there was this huge stuff toy in the shop and my Dad said..it’s yours if you come first in class!!!
    But today when i am back to books again, I dont work hard to come first or to get a A grade, I just do my best!
    They still enquire about my exams and this time my response is different- I am like, I dont feel sad after taking the exam so i think i did well or when I put the pen down, I thought I couldnt do better than this…and I am happy with my best!
    And this is what I plan to pass down the future generations

  5. I do see your point, and it’s good that you emphasize that you should strive to do the best you can.

    Unfortunately, too many people take the “winning isn’t everything” attitude and go too far the other way. It’s fine if you don’t win. But if you don’t do your best in a competition, then what’s the point?

    Thus, they put a minimum of effort into what they’re doing because they’ll be told that they did a good job anyway. If the whole world put a minimum of effort into everything it does, where would we be?

    No kid should be put through what you say your parents did, being criticized for getting a 92 but having somebody else get higher than you. On the other hand, nobody should be encouraged when they don’t do their best.

    I hope that made sense. Sorry for rambling. 🙂

    • It does make sense, Dave, and I see what you’re saying. There are always going to be those who take something and turn it over, but I don’t think those who put in minimum effort should be rewarded and told they did a good job anyway (but then again, that brings up the question of: how does anyone know their truepotential, except they themselves?) — people take advantage of social clauses to meet their own interests. All we really need to do — all of us — is be honest with ourselves.

  6. Outstanding post. We are set up for failure from the start when we are told to win at all costs. It is about being the best we can be. Sadly, far too many people don’t give life their best. They do just enough to get by.

    Imagine how life could be if everyone gave their absolute best to each and every day.

  7. I concur with you. I grew up the same way you did, and sometimes it was frustrating. After I came to US, I was by myself and I really didn’t aim to always get an A. I enjoyed my life thoroughly and adopted the “work hard play harder” attitude.

    Time and again I come across people who judge me as a loser when I say I am doing this (playing a sport, going for a difficult hike, etc) just for fun….but I don’t care much now.

    I hope I am able to keep the same approach as a parent in future.

    Good post!

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