Losing it

Loser 2I don’t play sport; I’m a bad loser. I think, when I was a kid, I disliked not being on the winning team and, subsequently, not being chosen for any team. My experience of games lessons at school was one of ungainliness. I stopped playing sport; I cut it out of my life. To a lesser extent, I have done the same with games. Although I have happy memories of playing Mastermind and a home-made 3D noughts and crosses with my brother Raymond, I stopped playing Axiom with Magdalena when I realised she was beating me most of the time. With Axiom, I was interested in exploring different dynamics of a game in which the board moves as well as the pieces; I was too impatient to stick to winning strategies. And despite not being very motivated to win, it still stung when I lost. So I quit.

Of course quitting is a strategy of mine. From 1977 until 2000 I refused to dance* because some girls laughed at me once in a high-school disco (ah the cruelty of schoolgirls). And when, finally, I allowed dancing into my life, at the age of 34, I found that I enjoyed it very much. Dancing has contributed enormously to the richness of my present life. So what about sport and games?

Lately I have been considering the following theory about games and sports: Wanting to win is part of the rules of the game. Maybe you already knew this. I don’t think I did. I thought that one chose to play games for with the intention of winning. I was confusing loosing in the game with failure in life and making an identity issue of my winning or losing. But now I think it more useful to consider attempting to win as just another of the rules that some games happen to have. Some games entail taking turns, others entail continuous play, some entail moving balls, others entail speaking words. It varies. Some, but by no means all, include the notion of a winning player or team and rules that define the winning conditions; when playing such games, it is usual to adopt an attitude of attempting to win. Indeed not to do so may be interpreted as patronising by one’s opponent; it may spoil their enjoyment of the game, even if they win. Enjoying the game, I like to remind myself, is much of what play is about (learning is, I think, what most of the rest of play is about).

Now, the interesting thing about this is that winning and losing crop up in life, together with their close cousins failure and success, in places that I don’t always think of as games. I’m taking a bit of a liberty here by extending win and lose to succeed and fail, but a lot of what contributes the mix of choice making in my life, and I suspect of yours too, is fear of failing and not wanting to be a loser. So I am extending my theory about winning and losing to failing and succeeding and, when I hear those words, looking round to see what the game is whose rules entail becoming successful.

When we step into the frame of a competitive game, we put on the games kit or thinking cap we find there and get ready to play to win. And when its done we take off those things and step out of the frame. Whether we were on the winning or losing side, what counts is whether we enjoyed the process (or learned something). What if the same were true for all those situations in life where we are in danger of failing? What if choosing to try and succeed is just one of the rules of a game by which we may choose to play? And what if it meant nothing, when we step out of the frame of that game, whether or not we were “successful” as defined by the rules of that game.

I am listening for times when I hear myself saying something like “I want to be a successful ….” or “I feel like such a failure”. According to my theory, these are not conditions of affecting me objectively, they are winning or loosing conditions determined by the rules of the games of life that I find myself playing. Now I’m looking out to see what those rules are, and whether or not I am enjoying the game (or learning something from it). This gives me a broader view of my situation and more awareness of my choices: quit, try harder, change the rules….?

* Except, under very special circumstances, and under the influence of alcohol, to the Blues Brothers soundtrack.


  1. Mark Says:

    Thanks to Matt for helping me sort this stuff out last night.

    Also thanks to Cardenio for this encouraging definition of “Loser” on the Urban dictionary.

  2. Jim Says:

    I’m not entirely sure I follow you, but you’ve successfully (eek) gotten me thinking about the relationship between victory/defeat and success/failure.

    Playing tennis in my youth, these two were fairly tightly bound. If I won, I felt that I had succeeded, and if I won, I felt I had failed.

    This has faded, though, as I’ve aged. Now, I find it increasingly possible to feel that I have succeeded if I have played well by my own standards, irrespective of the score. In golf this is even moreso. Sometimes I can play horribly, have a horrible score, yet still feel successful on the basis of just a couple of good shots.

    The desire to win is still very important; it is fundamental to my idea of “playing well”. The latter is done in pursuit of the former. However, a good pursuit of victory is increasingly becoming my condition for a feeling of success, rather than attainment of victory.

    The destination is necessary because it defines the journey, but reaching it or not reaching it is not what makes the journey a good (successful) one.

    Here’s a related thought on sport. One measure of the quality of a game/sport (as a coordinated set of activities, rules, etc) is the extent to which successful play is rewarded with victory. Put more simply, are sports in which aesthetically bad play triumphs, in some way worse sports?

  3. Mark Says:

    Hi Jim.

    Im happy that I got you thinking. I think the link between winning and succeeding is the most tenuous part of this blog and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it further.

    “The desire to win is still very important; […] a good pursuit of victory is [a] condition for a feeling of success, rather than attainment of victory.”

    Let me say what this means to me and see if that was your intention. I hear you saying something like: looking back on a game of sport, you judge your success of the event based on your having adopted an appropriately competitive attitude (pursuit of victory) and having played well with that intention, irrespective of who actually won? And an unsuccessful game might be on in which either you wanted to win and played poorly for some reason or one in which you couldn’t be bothered to win and thus your play, however good it was, was not focussed on the object of the game.

    If I got this rignt, then we seem to be in agreement. For me playing the game is a question of stepping into the frame defined by the game. This comprises its rules; not following the rules (cheating) would be not in the sprit of the game, not playing to win would equally not be in the spirit of the game.

    What I’m want to understand better is the transfer of the game concept of win/lost to the self judgement of succeed/fail and whether it could be useful to apply a similar idea in other contexts where I hear myself and other people speaking of success and failure (e.g. I have to have a good job and a successfu career). Im wondering if when there is success/failure at stake, I can infer a metaphorical game of some sort whose rules and ‘spirit’ determine the judgement of success. And if so I suspect it might be fun to identify the game as such and be aware of the option of stepping out of the frame and leaving its winning and losing behind rather than taking it with me as my success and or failure.

  4. Tygger Says:

    I’m not sure transferring the game concept of win/lost – where you play AGAINST an OPPONENT – to that of self judgement of succeed/fail – where you are most likely playing against YOURSELF, or your own DEFINITION of what a ‘successful’ venture is, is useful for everyone.

    I find I divide those two concepts quite strongly because of who/what I’m playing against …

  5. Mark Says:

    Mithi, I’m interested in the idea of playing against one’s self. Do you mean like Minesweeper or Solitaire? Or in other things that we sometimes ascribe success of failure to, like “successful” career or life? I’m really interested in what the rules are, even if we make them up ourselves. Can you think of an example?

  6. Tygger Says:

    Your Minesweeper/Solitaire thing is a good example … I could happily spend hours doing stuff like that, and rate myself and judge my improvements against my , erm, ‘former self’ if you get my drift – whereas even a game of tictactoe … against someone, I don’t enjoy. And thats pretty much how I go about doing most of the things I do. My motivation for success (mostly) is how much better I can make myself from my current self – not how much better I can get than that person over there, say. I don’t think that most people operate that way though.

    ‘The rules’, as you’re describing them (or my understanding of it anyways) I think are very different from person to person. My rules on the ‘game’ of life are ‘get better than my current self’ – other’s rules maybe ‘be better than my parents/siblings/classmates/partner/expert in the field’ etc. My judging process as to whether ‘have I been successful or not is very much an internal process … I look at myself, and I make the decisions. For others its very much an external one – having to have their success ‘ratified’ by some external person/force … eg “yes dear, very good dear”. I do that when I have no benchmark for what ‘successful’ is – for example with my illustration coursework, I ask my tutors because I trust them to know better.

    My theory is that its a lot to do with how you were brought up, being encouraged to be competitive? With lots of other children where you inevitably played with them and so have more of a social streak…

    I personally was an only child a lot of my childhood (my sister was born when I was 11) and also didn’t have a large extended family around me. I was very shy, and didn’t get involved any sporting activities as I was very sheltered by my parents (i could hurt myself cycling, no?). Compare this to someone who is the middle of 5 children, and so from a young age are describing their success/failures to what their other siblings have achieved….

    I have no idea what you meant by ‘example’ so I’ve just rambled on a bit …

    And can I just say, that I feel my way of benchmarking me against my own self is a lot less painful than doing it against someone else. When I was dancing, I was happiest when it was not about anyone else, but how good I was compared to how good I was the month before … the moment I started thinking, “hmmm, I have got this much better in the last month, and they have got THAT much better in the last month”, everything became much less fun! It becomes demoralising, and actually affects my rate of improvement … so I tend to generally avoid comparing myself to others.

  7. Mike Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting stuff. Can I throw in a phrase that lives with me every day in my career.
    As a younger engineer working in Bids & Proposals – the most competitive area of most companies – I was giving my-all to trying to win work for the company. To win work meant we all continued, to lose, meant…..y’know.
    I took it very seriously, clearly, because a colleague once said to me “mike it’s just a game”.
    I have since that time used that association in situations that arise almost daily. The exceptions being aspects like health & safety.
    Every day is our chance to make a ‘play’, be it just chosing one of ‘x’ options that dictate our activities over the coming days, or a long term strategy aimed at the next career move.
    I like your use of the term ‘frame’. As I see it our lives contain many ‘frames’. All of us are able to succeed or fail to different degrees in the various frames of our lives. Off the top of my head I would say my life’s ‘frames’ are:
    -Personal Health
    I am sure I am not the best Husband/Father in the world. I have got better at it (self-improvement) but doubt I will get better than most in my life-time.
    Changing Kit.
    Proffessionally I have been lucky (made good strategic decisions?) but I am no academic, nor a great leader. I have done better (financially) than I ever expected of myself and yet I am still surrounded by people ‘better then me’ based upon most mainstream measures.
    Changing Kit.
    As age starts to be an issue, I need to take better care of myself blah, blah… I have come to admire poeple who are able to do all the right things in term of diet, excercise, etc. Mentally that key element seems to be missing in myself. Certain failure unless I can find the motivation.
    Changing Kit.
    Sports – like you I have never enjoyed them much – they always lead to competition. Hobbies, many of which can also be doomed by those seeking competition. For me my hobbies are the most self-indulgent (satisfying) parts of my life. To me fabricating something from scrap, or making something that was broken – work again, or learning something new are all personal successes.
    I think it all comes down to the measure you chose to use.

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