I was attending university in Kingston, a diminutive city in the province of Ontario, eastern Canada. Through hard work and a touch of luck, I had become one of the newest members of the varsity fencing team. There were three weapons available - foil, epee, and sabre - each with differing rules and styles, and I was selected to be a member of the university's four-man epee team.
Two months into training, I attended my first provincial-wide fencing competition. The best fencers from all the major Ontario universities were there. I was pitted against a top contender in the first round. I had no expectations of winning.
I clearly remember this duel. Knowing my opponent had years of experience over me, I attacked, fast and hard, considering that the only chance I had was to surprise him early and get ahead on points to edge out the victory. I cared not about losing; I just wanted to make him earn the win. To my surprise, the strategy worked - my attacks were well-timed, my feints and lunges precise and accurate. My opponent parried away most of them, yet I was able to repeatedly switch into different styles of attack after his initial parry by altering the thrust of my epee from high to low, or coming at him from a different angle. I scored points off his his chest, his legs, his gloves, even his feet and before I knew it, the score was 10-3 in my favour - only five points to go. My coaches and several team-mates had come around by now to watch the spectacle, watch the newcomer as he seemed on the verge of defeating a respected veteran.
At this point, my opponent was screaming and swearing in vexation. He paused for a minute, at 10-3, to regain his composure. Meanwhile, I had time to re-assess the situation. I was winning! All I had to do was earn five points - how hard could it be? Yet with the new excitement of a near-certain victory on the horizon, something changed.
We continued, and yet suddenly it was all different. I had been shifted to a parallel universe, one in which I could not fence. My attacks became sloppy. I froze up, mind and body both, and started concentrating more on defense than on offense. At the same time, my opponent was gaining confidence. He became icy calm. He was scoring point after point. In a flash, it was over. He triumphed, 15-13.
That duel bothered me for years. It was not until nearly two decades later that I understood how the tide had turned so rapidly, how I had lost while on the verge of winning.
For most of my life, I have hated failure. Growing up, I worked hard to get an "A" on my school assignments, practiced diligently on the piano to the point where mistakes were nonexistent, and chastised myself every time I screwed up a shot while playing my main high school sport, tennis. The result of all this was that I performed well in all of these things. Yet only up to a point. When I reached university, things changed - my marks plummeted, I had given up on piano, and after failing to get onto the varsity tennis team, I gave up on tennis too. I knew that something in my approach was wrong, I just did not know what it was.
In his book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, author Robert Kiyosaki devotes much time to the concept of winning (1). He reflects upon his own early days, and extrapolates his experiences to those of most people in their school days. In school, it is drilled into people that mistakes are bad, and students are punished for making them. The fear of failure often motivates a person to study more than any genuine desire to improve their understanding of the topic. However, Kiyosaki argues that the way people learn is not through avoiding errors, but through making them, and learning from them. He uses several examples to back his point, such as that in order to successfully ride a bike, one must first fall down. The falls cannot be avoided; they are necessary part of successfully riding a bike.
This constant drumming into people at an early age that mistakes and failures ought to be avoided eventually results in a mind-set of what I call sham winning - a method for achieving a goal that focuses on making the fewest mistakes, the least failures, and avoiding setbacks to reach that goal. In other words, sham winning is a method for achieving a goal that focuses on avoiding losing. Sham winning certainly gets a person "ahead" in the short-term, yet in the long-run this is paradoxically a losing strategy, as it does not lead to a deeper understanding of the world or of one's self.
This may seem painfully obvious to some people - that to win at anything, a degree of losing must be tolerated. Yet to accept this statement and leave it at that, is still to miss the point. There is more.
The definition of sham winning is to avoid losing - and yet this is how most people tackle their goals. Whether it be their job, the stock market, or just a board game, most people ultimately play not to lose rather than to win. In fact, many people are so afraid to lose at something that they do lose. This is what happened to me during that fencing bout. When I was ahead 10-3, I suddenly realized that I could actually win, and with this realization I became gripped by a force founded in fear, a force that told me not to screw up my lead in points. So I froze up - I started fencing not to lose, whereas up until that moment I had been fencing towards a different goal, the goal of simply fencing as well as I could. When I realized I could win, I became so worried about "not losing" that it became inevitable.
Make no mistake, losing sucks - however, as we stated above it is a necessary step on the road to success. Yet the recognition that losing is sometimes necessary and unavoidable is not enough. There must be a shift in how the losing experience is viewed, a shift from tolerating it to actually valuing it. The sham winner avoids mistakes, failures, and setbacks; the sham winner fears losing. However, while the real winner certainly does not enjoy losing at the time that it happens, he or she values the losing experience forevermore and in fact is even inspired by losing to improve and do better the next time around.
In essence, the real winner ismore afraid of not trying to win than they are of losing. This is the fundamental difference between sham winning and real winning, or false success and real success, or whatever you want to call it.
Most people are trained from birth to think that mistakes are not acceptable - in school, in extracurricular activities, and in sports. Yet mistakes are how people learn, how they win in the end.
Never run from what you know you need to learn. Venture beyond the realization that losing must be tolerated - instead, get inspired by it.