Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Who cares about winning? Why do we care? Do we care?

A few months ago, Matt put up a thought-provoking post about Questioning Ends. Admittedly, I was very turned off by the post and some of the comments that were left on it, and it's worth taking the time to read both the post and the comments to understand the points in full. In short, however, Matt was questioning a friend's drive to "win" races (based on a quote the friend posted), and asked "Why is winning important?"

What upset me at the time was that the question, and later the answers some gave, completely misunderstood the friend's own answer, which explained the quote ("You just have to keep believing that one day you will win.") by saying "The quote really means to get to the heart of not doubting it when it seems a dream is impossible."

Earlier tonight I was having a conversation with my friend Howie, with whom I own Cleveland Browns' season tickets. He was noting that following sports in general is an exercise in stupidity from a payoff standpoint: You follow a team for a lifetime and if you're lucky, they win a few championships? I commented that our friend Jay had made an interesting point when the Cavs were knocked out of the playoffs, suggesting that focusing on the enjoyment of watching Lebron James instead of whether they win would be more worthwhile. Howie replied that while that's a cute and clever thought, when it comes down to it it is completely unsatisfying. He - and most any fan - would rather trade Lebron James away if it meant watching a championship team. The value in watching a sports game is increased by whatever it is they are playing for. The reason people are less interested in exhibition games is because they have no inherent value - though it may be the same players, the game is not the same. While it can still have some entertainment value, it comes nowhere near a regular season game, let alone a championship.

As I agreed with him, I couldn't help but think back to Matt's post. What is it about exhibition games that make them so much less valuable? It's the same game, with the same rules. They play predominantly the same way. The answer is obvious: It's less valuable because nobody really cares who wins at any point in the game. And yet, even when a team loses a championship game, their disappointment often does not come close to what one might expect as compared to how much emphasis they place on winning. Why is that? Why is winning so integral to the game all the way through, but losing far less important at the end?

I think the answer is clearer when we look at the rarer losing team who is absolutely devestated at the end - sitting on their bench, that crushed look on their faces as their chance at victory has been snatched away. Their devastation most often comes from a failure of some sort - expectations unachieved, squandered opportunities, and a disappointment at having failed where they were supposed to have succeeded. Ultimately, that sadness comes from having not been their best when it truly mattered. Lebron James says he found it difficult to congratulate the Orlando Magic after they knocked the Cavs out because as a competitor it did not make sense to him to do so; the Cavs, after all, had been the favorites to win. The same Lebron James had no such difficulty congratulating the San Antonio Spurs after being swept in four games by them two years earlier, because those Cavs were not expected to even make it that far.

The significance of victory is much deeper (or simpler) than merely winning. I commented on Matt's post at the time:
The purpose of winning within just itself, of course, is to win. But the reason we encourage people to strive to win is because the drive used in attempting to win brings out the best in that person while they strive for that victory. [...]

Winning in and of itself is important for a brief moment. Like any success, after the achievement is reached it is only useful in measuring how far you've come and how that can be utilized to be successful in the future. Winning as a *concept* is important in that by striving to "be the best", people are forced to BE their best.
Professional teams often play exhibition games against college or semi-pro clubs. The pro team gains nothing if they win the game - there is little pride earned in winning a game one is supposed to win. If the college team wins, however, even if the pro team was playing its bench much of the game, the college team will take intense pride in their accomplishment.

Ultimately, striving to "win" - much like any goal - is what brings out the best in people. Without that mindset, there is simply almost no way a person or team will put forward their best efforts and utilize their greatest skills. People typically don't play basketball - or even Boggle - without keeping score, because it would be boring and the people wouldn't be trying nearly as hard; but should they keep score, even the 'loser' is satisfied at the end if they feel it was a "good game" where they put in a solid effort.

The reason winning brings such elation is that it is a measurement of having succeeded in one's quest. That feeling also quickly dissipates to an extent as the person then tries to consider ways in which they can be even better, or more consistent - can they do it again?

Near the end of the comment thread, Matt adjusted his question to agree with this point, but question why bringing out the best in many areas of life was worthwhile.
"I agree that encouraging people to win can help them to bring out the best in themselves. But the question is: best in what?"
I felt that the answer to this was important as well:
Best in whatever it is that best utilizes their skills and drive, typically, though it could be something which best lets them overcome a weakness, something which best helps them develop a mindset for life, etc. Certainly the idea alone of "I can accomplish anything I put my mind to to a degree far exceeding what I could currently" would be an improvement to near any human being.

Winning, or the drive toward it, is actually quite similar in the end to self-reflection and introspection. Both are not ends in and of themselves, but means to ends. I think often people forget this, and take pride in their self-reflective, introspective, or even intellectual natures or actions (rightfully, I might add) but forget that all of those are but tools to becoming a better person - not just in thought, but in action. We forget that the theoretical is there for its practical intent, not just for its own self-purpose.

Whatever one may think of winning a medal's value, the lesson we learn from one who pursues it is quite impressive if we choose to do so.
In the end, nearly everything in life comes back to how it helps us live that life. Mussar can be taken from anywhere and applied to anything. The drive to win happens to be an easier lesson which resonates well with nearly everyone, and what comes out of that drive is unmatched from nearly any other method: Introspection, intellectualism, self-reflection - those often pale in comparison to winning when it comes to motivating people. Without motivation, success in any area of life is difficult to achieve.