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Winning The Losers

We as a society are obsessed with winning. But, what happens when we imbibe this 'win at all costs' attitude in our children? Are boundaries between winning and losing that well defined? These are the questions we as a society need to introspect on.

By Amit Phansalkar, 2/28/2004 (Reproduced from Buzzle.com)

We as a society are obsessed with winning: be it a simple game of soccer in the backyard or a school debating competition; be it a local election or a real war. Winning is all that matters. I remember lyrics of an Abba song that summarize it aptly: The winner takes it all \ The loser standing small. We are raised to compete in this bad bad world. Competition is the buzz world. Complacency is almost a sin. We as a generation are raised on these competitive paradigms - of winning vs. losing. It's all about being 'first'. Consciously and sub-consciously, we're being told throughout our life that it's either winners or losers, and that if you are not one of the former then you are one of the latter. Consciously or sub-consciously, we have become automatons who are programmed to win -- with no backup plan.
Naturally, as parents also, we want our children to be winners. We compare them with other kids of their age -- from school, from family, from social circle. In extreme cases, some parents even compare between their own kids. The under-achievers are at times treated with disdain, loved less, neglected. As if living up to our image of success is imperative on them. What happens when we imbibe this 'win at all costs' attitude in our children? What happens when we push them to the limits of their capacities, in order to top in schools, in extra-curricular activities -- some chosen, some forced? Is it really winners vs. losers -- is it that simple? Are boundaries between winning and losing that well defined? I remember a thought by Richard Bach in Bridge Across Forever:

That's what learning is after all: not whether we lose the game, but how we lose, and how we've changed because of it, and what we take away from it that we never had before - to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way, is winning.
Idealism! The real world is not like that -- this is the way we counter any differing opinion on this. Resources and opportunities in the world are always limited, we say. There is a room only for a few and too many aspirants, so you cannot afford to take it lightly, we say. It's a rat race and if you don't win, no one will give a damn about you, we say. After all, that is what our evolution has taught us - the fittest survive.
However, it makes me wonder, are winners -- as we call them -- necessarily better off? What does this obsession with winning do to their lives, their value systems, their sensitivities? What does it do to their relationships? When one is obsessed with winning, it doesn't matter what is it that one wants to win? Every small defeat is a blow, no matter how inconsequential. Why? Because winning matters? Isn't that a circular argument? The tragedy is, we start running even before we know what we're running for. The rat race doesn't stop for you. And by the time we might think of questioning it, it's already too late. Even if we finally win, there is this sudden emptiness: is this what I really wanted? If all we're going to get at the end, is emptiness, then is it the real winning? Do we really have time to think about this? Isn't that necessary? Instead we treat the symptoms of the disease -- depression, anxiety, mid-life crisis, stagnation -- the feeling of being stuck up, broken relationships, broken homes, inferiority complexes in children, ... The list is by no means exhaustive. But we keep on treating each of these symptoms, while ignoring the disease.
Am I saying we should abandon the quest for winners? Of course not. All that I'm saying is, winning is a very fuzzy concept, and obsession with it should be questioned, especially as parents. Children are naturally competitive - they want all to themselves, they always want to win. It's a natural human tendency to want to surpass everyone, and to excel in whatever you do. But growing up is also about learning to take small defeats in stride and move on; its also about questioning what one really wants/needs. In a sense, I think the whole society needs to grow up. It needs to question the rat races everywhere and the exclusive winner/loser way of thinking. And above all, It needs to be somewhat more forgiving and understanding to the (so called) losers -- especially as children, as teens. Life is much more complex than it used to be. It's easy to lose your way. A civilized society knows how to forgive such lapses. We need winners and we're proud of them. But we will have more of them if we stopped pressing for them.
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