It’s about that time of year again: In just two short months, my new book, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, will be released. I can’t wait for this book to come out, because while winning is fun and easy, losing can be challenging. Yet how we deal with loss has a huge effect on our personal growth. We need to learn something from every loss if we want to reach our potential and eventually win in life. That’s the goal of the new book: to change our perspective on winning and losing, so we can make loss a learning experience and achieve more wins.
Let’s talk about why we tend to react badly to losses. Think of some of the losses in your life and how they made you feel. Not good. And it’s not just the pain of the moment that affects us. Our losses also cause us other difficulties. Here are just a few:
1. Losses Cause Us to Be Mentally Defeated
Life is a succession of losses, beginning in childhood. We lose the warmth and comfort of the womb that nurtured us for the first nine months of our existence. We lose our favorite toys. We lose the privilege of pursuing the irresponsible pleasures of youth as adults, we lose jobs and positions. Our self-esteem may take a beating. We lose money. We miss opportunities. Friends and family die. And I don’t even want to talk about some of the physical losses we experience with advancing age! We lose all these things and more, until we finally face the final loss—that of life itself. It cannot be denied that our lives are filled with loss. Some losses are great; some are small. And the losses we face affect our mental health. Some people handle it well, while others don’t.
The quality that distinguishes a successful person from an unsuccessful one who is otherwise like him is the capacity to manage disappointment and loss. This is a challenge because losses can often defeat us mentally. I know I’ve had to fight that battle. When that happens, our thinking becomes like that of Harry Neale, the coach of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s. He said, “Last year we couldn’t win on the road and this year we can’t win at home. I don’t know where else to play!”
Too often losing goes to our heads. It defeats us, and we have trouble coming up with solutions to our challenges. As the losses build up, they become more of a burden. We regret the losses of yesterday. We fear the losses of tomorrow. Regret saps our energy. We can’t build on regret. Fear for the future distracts us and fills us with apprehension.
2. Losses Create a Gap between I Should and I Did
Winning creates a positive cycle in our lives. When we win, we gain confidence. The more confidence we have, the more likely we are to take action when it’s needed. That inclination to move from knowing to acting often brings success.
However, losing can also create a cycle in our lives—a negative one. Losses, especially when they pile up, can lead to insecurity. When we are insecure, we doubt ourselves. It causes us to hesitate when making decisions. Even if we know what we should do, we are reluctant to do it. When such a gap is created and isn’t overcome, success becomes nearly impossible.
3. The First Loss Often Isn’t the Biggest Loss
When we experience a loss, we have a choice. If we immediately respond to it the right way, the loss becomes smaller to us. However if we respond the wrong way, or we fail to respond at all, that loss becomes greater. And it often leads to other losses. As the subsequent losses come at us, they seem to be bigger and bigger, crashing over us like waves in a violent storm. As the number of losses goes up, our self-confidence goes down.
Yoga teacher and writer Kripalvananda said, “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” I believe that in times of loss, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking about how we could have or should have done things differently. Our self-talk can become very negative. The more negative it becomes, the larger our losses appear to be to us. If our self-talk is angry, destructive, or guilt producing, we become even less capable of breaking free of the negative cycle.
4. Losses Never Leave Us the Same
Coaches of sports teams live in a world of wins and losses. Legendary football coach Knute Rockne quipped, “One loss is good for the soul. Too many losses are not good for the coach.” And longtime major league manager Paul Richards said, “If you can say the morale of your club is good after losing ten out of twelve games, then your intelligence is a little low.” But you don’t have to be a coach or play on a sports team to feel the impact of a loss.
The number or severity of your losses isn’t as important as how you experience those losses. Yes, all losses hurt. And they make an impact on us, an impact that is rarely positive. Losses change us. But we must not allow them to control us. We can’t let the fear of looking silly or incompetent paralyze us. We can’t let the fear of negative consequences keep us from taking risks. Allowing negative experiences of the past to warp your future is like living in a coffin. It puts a lid on you and can end your life.
How does one minimize the negative damage of debilitating losses? First, by letting them go emotionally. In 1995 when Jerry Stackhouse was a rookie with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, he was asked about his take on life now that he was playing professional basketball. His answer: “Win and forget. Lose and forget.” If we want to overcome adversity and keep from being defeated by our losses, we need to get past them. And then we need to learn from them!
What losses are you allowing to get you “stuck”? List some ways you can change your perspective and learn from them. Life may contain a succession of losses, but it doesn’t have to be defined by them. Learning is what makes the difference.
Adapted from Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn (October 2013)