On Winning & Losing

This is my best opinion at a guide to competing for something and how to conduct yourself through any competition.

First, read Sun Tzu, The Art of War. It’s translated into several languages. The author wrote it back when people didn’t get paid by the word — at least he didn’t seem to — so it’s succinct.

Before competing for anything, decide if there is a possibility that you may win. Winning may not necessarily mean getting the top prize offered in some competition. It may not even mean winning any prize offered; sometimes it is right to compete to win something that is tangential to the actual competition. A good example is competing for visibility: by competing you may attain others’ knowledge that you exist. This is just an example. Pick a goal, because you never win anything real without a goal.

Stick to your goal. Don’t adjust it, upwards or downwards, after you’ve established it. This is in small part for others and in large part for yourself. There is a significant emotional and psychological component to competition and changing your goal in either direction will take a sharp cut into anything you have invested there. There are ways to achieve more than you originally intended but not by changing your goal. (More on that later.)

Before continuing, envision the two possible results, your winning and your losing. Do this well, take some time and effort to be thorough. Think about the world, outside yourself, when you win and when you lose. Can you bear to survive given both outcomes? If you can only bear one possible outcome, including how the world around you would react to it, don’t compete and pick another battle. There is always another way.

Now comes the first hard part, choosing a bottom-end exit. This is where you give up. Think of it as the goal for your competition. Decide based on the point at which losing becomes unbearable to your state of being. I’ve found it best to avoid pride and emotion in deciding this, to the extend possible.

Next define two things: your competition and your status metrics. Both need to be defined clearly and fairly. Vague definitions of these things are lies to yourself. Unfair definitions are likewise lies to yourself. Lying to yourself is a good way to obstruct your own chances of winning.

The competition may not be a person, organization, or similar. You may be competing against something ephemeral, like Mother Nature, or against some part of yourself. If there is no competition, you are not competing; stop immediately and start again from the beginning. If the competition is clearly unfair, you are not competing; stop immediately and start again from the beginning. An able person competing for life and death against an ant, both in the middle of an open area isn’t competition: the ant will lose every time. You may notice that there is fair assessment of some factors of the competition; a person on their deathbed competing for life and death against a young ant inside a wall two thousand miles away presents a different challenge.

Your status metrics define three things: where you start, who is winning at any given time and where you end. The third should be easiest: if you’ve already defined a goal, you should be able to articulate to yourself when you’ve reached it. The first may be easy as well and it is almost always here, now and with the current state of existence. The middle one, knowing where you stand at any point during the competition, may be difficult or impossible to measure. Competition can’t happen without the first and last but it can happen without the middle. Competing without any indication of where you stand is more difficult than any other kind of competition.

Note carefully that if there is no fair indication of where you stand during the competition, you are competing with no knowledge (whatsoever) of where you stand. If this is the case, ignore all such information, the unfair information, during the entire competition. Having biased information is very much worse than having no information at all.

During the competition, always put forth your best effort towards winning. Your best effort may not be the same at all times. Most competitions are not held in a vacuum and external factors may significantly affect your ability to contribute towards the end goal. In fair competition, the ability of the competitors to overcome external factors is generally the sole determination of which competitor wins. Keep that in mind.

During the entire competition, maintain full respect for your competition. Whether you are currently winning, currently losing, or status information is unavailable, you are always one bad turn away from losing. Invariably and whether you win or lose, you will be judged by how hard you competed and how fairly you competed. The easiest — and only — way to compete fairly is by maintaining complete respect for your competition, outwardly and inwardly. There is no leeway on this.

If your goal has more than one factor, never stop competing — or even slow down — until every factor has been completed. This is where clear statement of the goal in the first place comes in very handy. For instance, if your goal is to win the student president election on election day, don’t stop competing when you pull ahead of your competition the week before election day. You’ll have satisfied one criterion of the goal but not the other. Essentially, by doing this, you are likely causing yourself to lose. (This is part of why you should never adjust your goals: if you don’t stop competing, you may very well exceed one goal while still competing for another.)

Similarly, as soon as your entire goal is satisfied, stop immediately. The competition is over. Not only is it pointless to continue, but it is immoral. Competing after competition has ended is equivalent to starting a new competition, against unfair competition, with unstated goals. This will always end badly if continued.

Also similarly, if you reach your bottom-end exit point, stop immediately. The competition is over. You have reached the point at which you can no longer compete. Respectfully thank your competition for their effort and clearly remove yourself from the arena.

After the competition has ended, you will have either won or lost. In the event of a draw, all competitors have lost as they have failed to distinguish themselves from the others. Determine where you stand, respectfully thank your competition for their effort and clearly remove yourself from the arena. If you’ve won, when you thank your competition, do it as if they’ve won. (More on why later.)

You are not done.

If you’ve won, you are now the victor. Quietly, to yourself, congratulate yourself for your victory. Do not be proud and exhibit humility. Recognize everything around you that has helped you towards this victory. It is not the same victory as any other victory, it is yours, from this competition, and it is unique. With winning comes a great responsibility. Prepare yourself to discharge that responsibility to the best of your abilities.

If you’ve lost, accept your loss. Recognize everything around you that helped you compete. You’ve made your best effort so congratulate yourself for that. This competition is over.

You are still not done.

Whether you’ve won or lost, some things hold true:

  • You are always eligible to compete again, but always at something else. You cannot recreate this particular competition. Sometimes you can get close, but it will never be exactly the same. This is the other reason to never adjust your goal: you may compete again later.
  • Your competition may have won or lost, independently of whether you won or lost. Your competition may not have been competing for the same thing as you. It is their right to compete for something different than you are, just as it is your right to compete for something different than they are. This is why you should always thank your competition as if they’ve won: even if you won, they may have won as well.
  • If the competition was fair and you competed fairly, never fear losing and never fear that someone else may have lost by your winning. Those two emotions are utterly senseless.
  • Every competition leads to experience. Make the most of your experience and learn how to become a better you through your experience in this competition.

On disputing decisions: this is difficult and risky. Before you decide to do this, carefully determine if the party that made the decision had the same goal, for winning and losing, as you did. If it is not exactly the same, do not dispute the decision because it is a decision on something else. Next, consider the likelihood of winning the dispute. This likelihood is more important than your belief in whether or not you were victorious. If you dispute and the previous decision is upheld, you will have competed unfairly, regardless of your performance in all previous parts of the competition. It is best to treat decision disputes as a new competition, with a new goal. Doing so reestablishes good criteria for your decision on whether or not you should compete, what you are competing for and how to win.

Good luck. Fight fairly.


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