If winning looks like this, let’s hear it for the losers
There is a large body of literature, and a growing number of podcasts, devoted to the psychology of losing – or “failure”, as it’s more likely to be called in America, a term with very little to recommend it. Losing in the English sense – oh, how impeccably English that notion is: Captain Oates trudging off to his death with a stiff “I may be some time”, or Captain Smith going down with the Titanic. In America, defeat is Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: a sad man in a cheap suit for whom there is no possible chance of redemption.
Viewed from abroad this week, these two versions of failure – of nobility in defeat, and of the American term “loser” – crashed up against each other via the juxtaposition of England’s football loss with Donald Trump’s visit to Britain. The world is a mess, there are heatwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, and we’re all very tired and emotional. Still, it was hard not to be moved by a sense of competing cosmic forces when regarding Gareth Southgate and his boys – shaking hands with the Croatians, returning home not as failures but as victors in the larger sense – alongside the spiteful little man from the White House.
Losing and taking it on the chin is a rite of passage modern parenting seems consistently to get wrong. “It’s the taking part that counts” – a homily no one believed in the 70s, and no one believes now – was nonetheless held up as an ideal that, it is often said, has been pushed aside by the ethos of prizes for all.
This only half holds up. It’s true that the school system in the US is fond of handing out certificates simply for showing up. But most parents I know still try to hose their kids down with a stern life lesson when they throw a tantrum after losing at Monopoly.
Still, if any good whatsoever should come from Trump’s presidency it may be this: the moral, writ large, of what happens to a person when they have a cast-iron inability to lose. This is what “winning” at all costs looks like: it is orange and fatuous and prone to tantrums. It lies and cheats. It despises those who, in a culture in which the ones who win do so largely because they were born in the right place at the right time, flunk these tests.
Along with having no humility or gratitude or understanding of where luck intersects with effort, it is ugly and blames its shortcomings on others. It is also disingenuous. Losing as a precursor to success – a great linchpin of the self-help industry – is one of those sneaky bits of motivational psychology that tries to have its cake and eat it, in the process making failure as a concept so intolerable as to barely exist.
It can’t be like this. Losing in and of itself has to have integrity, leading to nothing less than a state of grace. I sound a bit pious saying that, but that’s how it felt this week – like a moment in time we might look back on and say: this, and not that, is who we are trying to be.