We live in a very competitive world. Or, rather, the world is competitive because we’re brought up to be competitive. Win! we’re told. Get out there, do your best, become your best, and win!
It’s a mentality we either pick up through osmosis, or is outright given to us. When we play a game, our goal is to win. When we play a sport, our goal is to win. When we go to war, our goal is to win.
Yes, you may say, winning is good. Winning is how you get ahead in life, how you show you’re the best. However, says I, when the focus is on winning, the more valuable part of any conflict is lost.
Have you ever been playing a game or sport and found yourself despairing because you had no chance to win? Have you ever given up on a puzzle or a problem because it was so frustrating, and you just couldn’t figure it out? Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument where you’ve realized you’re wrong, but you keep arguing your point because you have to win?
Have you ever paused to consider why it is we challenge ourselves to puzzles, why we compete in games?
Back when I started highschool, before I fell in with the group of friends I came to spend all my time with, I spent my lunches playing chess. Not as part of the chess club, mind you – I actually stopped playing when that formed. No, I played chess with a specific friend that I met outside French class on my first day of school.
Now, this friend, to the best of my knowledge, was a genuine genius. I was no match for him at all – he knew all kinds of famous chess plays and I can’t even begin to guess how many moves he planned ahead. I lost every single game. Yet, every lunch hour, there I was – playing a new game. And, slowly but surely, I got better at chess. Much better, because every time I lost, I learned something. Then, one day, I came thiiiiis close to winning...! And the bell rang for end of lunch. But we both agreed that I probably would have one this time, something that delighted us both. I had become quite the strategist.
Years later, at my grandparents’ house, my brother and I were playing an old strategy game from my dad’s childhood. I quickly analyzed the game and, after a couple rounds, developed a strategy I believed to be unbeatable (I even figured out the one way to counter it, and how to prepare for and counter that counter). I defeated my brother in every round of the game, but at the end, he still wanted to play again. He kept trying different strategies, and I kept winning. Finally, I asked him why he kept wanting to play when he couldn’t beat me. I’ll never forget what he said:
“You’ve learned only one way to win. I’ve learned twenty ways how not to win.”
Even more years later, around the end of highschool, I got a strategy game called Khet – basically chess with lasers and mirrors. Once again, I soon came up with a strategy that was nearly unbeatable. I took challenger after challenger, and only rarely lost. But, when I did lose, I discovered that I enjoyed it! In fact, I enjoyed losing more than winning. And I couldn’t even allow myself to lose to get that enjoyment – because the fun came from trying my hardest and learning where I went wrong. The joy came from facing a challenge and growing from it.
Now, my examples are all from strategy games, but the same applies across everything in life – from a Sudoku puzzle to searching for a job to running a business. Puzzles and games challenge us for the purpose of helping us grow, and we learn far more form losing than from winning. Life will always throw challenges at us, and when we fail we have the opportunity to learn what we did wrong and fix it for the next time.
Our competitive society puts the emphasis on winning, rather than overcoming the challenge. But have you ever played a game where you were guaranteed to win? Was it fun? The fun doesn’t come from winning, the fun comes from the challenge.
As a society, we need to shift our focus away from winning. Yes, winning should still be the goal – what’s the point if you don’t try your best? – but the reward should be the challenge.
Think of how great the world would be if everyone stopped caring about winning, and started caring about the process of overcoming the challenge.
Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.