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June 3rd, 2008
06:17 PM ET

The art of losing well

Bruce Weinstein
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek

Why does Hillary continue to run, when the odds against her winning the Democratic Party’s nomination are so slim? Perhaps it’s because she truly believes she is the best person to be the next President of the United States. Perhaps it’s because she is convinced that, with continued determination, she can succeed at this formidable task. But the reason could be much simpler.

She may consider losing to be a form of personal failure.

If so, she is clearly not alone in feeling this way. We live in a culture that celebrates winners and chastises losers. “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” might well be the unofficial motto of this country. Indeed, everyone loves a winner, but losers are viewed with scorn and derision. This is more than unfortunate; it’s unfair. I will argue that we should rethink losing and that we ought to embrace our losses, rather than run from them.

THE WINNING MENTALITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
UCLA football coach Henry “Red” Sanders (who, not Vince Lombardi, coined the expression) was mistaken in holding winning to be “the only thing.” No one would rationally want to live in a world in which winning is our sole objective. There are other considerations that are as, or more, important than winning, whether the subject is football, corporate management, dating, or any other social activity.

The five fundamental principles of ethics are:

Do No Harm
Make Things Better
• Respect Others: 1, 2
• Be Fair: 1, 2
Be Compassionate

If winning were truly “the only thing”, then there would be no problem with hurting other people, cheating, lying, or stealing to achieve this objective. As we’ve seen too often over the past several years, however, the politicians, CEO’s, and athletes who have made a fetish out of winning at all costs have lost their careers, their marriages, their reputations, and sometimes even their freedom. The outrage over steroid use in baseball is fueled by the recognition that winning at the expense of fairness is just plain wrong. Getting rich by destroying the pensions of one’s own employees is, as Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling discovered, winning at its worst.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of winning, but if we ignore the ethical responsibilities of avoiding harm, being honest, and treating others fairly, we will forfeit the most important thing of all: our own integrity.

HOW TO LOSE WITH GRACE AND DIGNITY
With the above considerations in mind, I propose the following rules for rising to the challenge when you don’t reach a goal you’re trying to achieve:

1. BE ANGRY…BUT NOT FOR TOO LONG. It’s understandable to be upset when you lose, but dwelling on the loss, obsessing over it, or making it the focus of your life is more hurtful than helpful. As difficult as it may be to deal effectively with anger in every situation, it is in your own interest not to let anger get the best of you.

2. ACCEPT REALITY. We often tell ourselves, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Unfortunately, we have less control over our lives than we’d like to believe, and there is nothing we can do to alter this. There *is* such a thing as a zeitgeist (literally “spirit of the times”), and all the determination in the world cannot make other people do, say, or vote for something if they don’t want to. It should lessen the blow to realize that there is only so much we can do to affect the change we seek.

3. LOOK FOR THE LESSON. Yes, we learn by winning. (Think about how you surprised yourself the last time you accomplished something you thought would be too difficult to achieve.) But we also learn by losing, if we have the courage to pay attention. In looking honestly at a failed attempt to get a job or develop a romantic relationship, the lesson could be that we need to rethink our approach, or that we need to change something about ourselves. The best way to succeed next time, or to learn how to handle defeat better, is to find the lesson from our loss and take it to heart.

4. CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK. The ethical responsibilities to be fair and compassionate apply to how we treat ourselves, not just others. Berating yourself for losing isn’t a kind or decent way to treat yourself, and doing so prevents you from getting back into action, which can lead to further losses.

5. KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF LIFE. How many successful people do you know who are burdened by the weight of their past failures? If you let losing get the best of you, it will be all but impossible to go forward. Allow yourself to feel angry, but accept reality, learn from the experience, don’t be too hard on yourself, and move on.

These guidelines are intended to help you make the best of a losing situation. Let’s not forget, though, that the first order of business after losing is to congratulate the winner. Anyone can win. It takes a person of courage and grace to accept defeat and honor the victor. Such a person is will move beyond loss and emerge a stronger and better person…and be a true winner.

This is an adaptation of an article that first appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

Write to Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com.

Program note: Bruce Weinstein is a guest on CNN's American Morning, Wednesday, June 4, beginning at 6a ET


Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Hillary Clinton • Raw Politics
soundoff (254 Responses)
  1. Ann

    Congratulations to Obama! He is a great candidate. However, I have been volunteering for Hillary for many months and feel that it is close enough that Hillary can take her time. Carville is right, the Obama camp needs to recognize the supporters of Hillary. Make some concessions in order to gain the support of Hillary backers. Hillary needed to stand firm, to not concede and leave 18,000,000 voters dazed at the outcome. this is close, lets acknowledge this fact, Hillary may win the popular vote. Hurray for Hillary. Negotiate, and run together, for a winning ticket with Obama. Hurray for USA, for a great race!! ( :
    Ann Great coverage , Cnn!

    June 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
  2. Dorothy Allen

    The reason this party is so divided is because we sit and watch your panel tear into the two most popular people we have had in the history of this nation as you say. Yet you get your panel to say the most horrible things about Hilary. I am a Hilary person, and I hate what is said about her, and that makes me not want to vote for Obama. Your polls dont speak for 18,000,000. people. So dont underestimate whats going to happen in November.

    Dorothy
    Colorado

    June 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
  3. Tasha from Houston, TX

    I am so disappointed with Hillary Clinton. She spit in the faces of African-Americans in this country tonight. She showed absolutely no respect for them. This was a historic night. She obviously forgot that the United States was built on the backs of African slaves and denied human and civil rights for hundreds of years. She should be ashamed of herself and not expect African-Americans to vote for her and will not want her on Obama's ticket.

    June 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
  4. jerry eldridge

    Barack should embrace Hillary's feistiness and use it to his advantage. One major complaint of the Bush administration is that it's loaded with yes men and women, who drive the Bush highway. Barack should tell Hillary that he wants her on his team and wants her feistiness to help him in his major decision making. Colin Powell could have been that for Bush, but Bush's ego got in the way.

    June 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
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