Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.
– Wilma Rudolph
It’s funny how you never know which lessons you will take with you for the rest of your life. When I was 12 years old, I used to play pickup football and basketball with some of the neighborhood kids. The games were fun and I was one of the better players, due in large part because I was bigger and older. One day, I came home after pickup football and bragged to my brother that I had three interceptions that day. He said something that I never forgot. He said “Big deal. You beat a bunch of kids smaller and weaker than you. You’ll never get better that way.” And with that wake up call, everything changed. I wanted to prove him wrong. I started finding better competition to play with. And I started getting my butt kicked big time. Repeatedly. But I rarely got discouraged and a funny thing happened: I started getting better. After a while, I was good. Not relatively good, but actually good. I still played with my other friends, but I preferred the new games because I forced myself to up my game, to work harder, and to not be complacent. My brother was the right person to teach me the lesson. After all, as a child, I was convinced that he was put on this earth to beat me at everything and, as a result, I never wanted anything more than to beat my brother–and that set the bar for me. But I didn’t have a choice–that’s what brothers do. Until he called me out on that fateful night, I never sought out the challenge.
Thirty years later, I still think about that moment and I still follow that lesson. I believed in “Stay Hungry” long before Steve Jobs turned it into a catchphrase. Even some of my proudest successes were shadowed by disappointment that drove me harder. I went to Cornell, but my dream was MIT. When I got a job with Intel, I secretly hoped for Microsoft. I got into Wharton, but I had my heart set on Harvard. Even when I’ve won, I’ve never allowed myself to be complacent. In each situation, that disappointment drove me harder and made me more ambitious. Even today, at work, I operate with a persistent paranoia that motivates me. I’m constantly thinking “how can I be better?” and “what more can we do?” that probably drives my co-workers nuts. I’ve left jobs and companies I’ve loved because I thought I was stagnating. Anything I’ve accomplished can be attributed to this commitment to challenge myself. Much to Cherise’s chagrin, I’ll often beat myself up as a father because I know I can and should be better–even though she and the girls seem to be pretty happy with how I’ve done. I am my own worst critic and I do have to avoid self-loathing, but the motivation of knowing I have room for improvement does make me work harder. And that has translated into a willingness and desire to put myself out there. That’s a gift that continues to give.
In “Lean In”, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote about how men often position themselves for roles that may not be fully qualified for because they are brimming with confidence that they’ll figure it out, while women often shy away from these roles because they fear they won’t deliver. She insisted women need to shift form thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that and I’ll learn by doing it.” I follow the male part of this stereotype, but I never saw it as being part of my Y chromosome. Rather, it was all that losing and failure I experienced as a kid and realizing that the only way to get better was to take on the overwhelming challenge and adapt. It was the humbling experience and the ability to come back from it that anyone who dedicates themselves to anything at any level will understand–especially in sports. Whether you’re a recreational golfer hellbent on lowering your handicap to a high school star that is planning a one-and-done at Kentucky, the willingness to commit and accept initial struggles breeds to confidence to think you’ll accomplish what no one else thinks you can. But first, you have to lose. Struggling is good. It keeps you humble and it reminds you that, no matter what happens, the sun comes up the next day.
As I raise two kids, I think a lot about these lessons. As parents, I feel like we’re told to encourage at every turn and praise modest accomplishments like they’re the work of superheroes. It’s Lake Woebegone where are all the kids are above average. Every child is told they’re special. Everyone gets a trophy for participating in sports. Parents feel the need to step in when this specialness is at risk. I read an article where a father accused an opposing team of bullying because his son’s team was blown out in a football game. I’ve been told stories about parents that call employers after their adult kids get poor performance reviews. We’re so afraid to let children fail that we are told we need to save them at every step. There’s even a phrase for that class of parent: “helicopter parents”. That protection is great to build confidence that the kids maybe more willing to try new things, but horrible for when the child fails and the parent isn’t there to pick up the pieces. Failure, rejection, and losing are parts of life that aren’t fun, but we learn from them and they make us stronger. And I think our kids are more capable of handling it than we give them credit for–but they won’t be if we wait until they’re in college before they’re exposed to it. It’s almost as bad as a child who never hears the word “No”. Disappointment doesn’t have to be debilitating. In fact, in can be quite liberating.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking to launch into the kids like I’m an angry coach whose star player just made a bonehead play nor do I want to be the parent that never finds anything good enough (this isn’t a Tiger Dad rant). But I don’t mind if my kids lose. I don’t mind telling her that they’re not the best at a lot of stuff, though if they really want to, they can be. It just takes commitment. Iris and I spent a lunch together talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on 10,000 hours to master a craft. I reminded Iris that, while she has improved greatly at basketball, she is nowhere near 10,000 hours. If she really wants to be good, she has to keep practicing. I think she was listening, but she had a premature teen moment of assuming she was above the system. The next day, in her first official basketball game, they got blown out and she was a deer in headlights. Things were moving fast, the girls were bigger, and she had no court awareness. She was the weakest player on the weakest team. 24 hours earlier, she was proud of her basketball prowess. Now, she was shell-shocked, thinking “I thought I was good”. I sat in the bleachers with a combination of terror and relief. Terror that she would hate basketball because she no longer thought she was good, but relief that she could finally learn that she had a long way to go. Like me 30 years ago, the kids were all older and bigger. But each week, she commits herself and she gets better. Suddenly, she wants to learn all the other skills. Our 1×1 lessons before she started playing with others seemed a little lazy because the skills had no context (“I don’t want to dribble. I just want to shoot.”). And three weeks after that first game, when she blocked a shot, grabbed the loose ball, dribbled a bit, and passed it to a teammate, I nearly fell off the bleacher. It was a great moment, albeit soon to be followed by her getting out-rebounded on an easy play and giving up a basket 5 minutes later. But our conversation post-game revolved around BOTH plays and how to get better. I didn’t just talk about the success, because the lesson lay as much in the failure. There was no stigma in the mistake, just an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. And as a parent, I’ll take the opportunity for a lesson any chance I get. And hour by hour, we’ll creep to the 10,000 she knows she needs…