How to be a loser

by James Somers, February 28, 2009

If you think of losing as “not winning,” then when you try to work out why you’ve lost, or (God forbid) why you’re a loser, you’ll tend to focus on the things you didn’t do and the qualities you don’t have. So it goes with any “negative” concept, one that is defined by what it isn’t (think of how “background” = “everything but the foreground” or how valleys are made by the mountains around them).

I think it’s worthwhile to occasionally invert the picture, to see “being a winner” as “not being a loser.” That way you attend to those habits of mind that are hurting you, instead of the ones that might be helping.

In any case, here are what I take to be the three key features of a loser:

A loser wants to lose. It seems unlikely that anyone would try to fail, until you realize that high expectations are emotionally and mentally expensive. By that I mean that there is a lot more pressure, angst, self-doubt, and in general, reflexive cognitive corrosion (the kind of stuff going on inside a “head case’s” head) when there’s a good chance you’ll win, compared to when you think you’re likely to lose. Which is precisely the reason that mental self-discipline of the Tiger-Obama variety is so valuable.

As an example, competitive cross country races in eighth grade terrified me, whereas in high school I thought of them more like physically-challenging-but-basically-fun diversions. The difference is that I went from being the best on the team in eighth grade to out of contention in ninth, and I found this latter state of affairs a lot more comfortable.

Now the problem with that is that there is nothing more kryptonitic to a person’s Fighting Spirit, and to winning, than comfort. Nobody ever got anything done by being comfortable. If you are not working hard, you are not learning; if you never get past that point when a new project becomes actually difficult, where the marginal returns flatten out, then you will never be a master. Everything worthwhile is going to hurt, and if you avoid pain, you will fail. Etc.

Which is to say that by expecting not to win — likely because it’s easy to think of yourself as basically-out-of-the-running and out-there-just-have-a-good-time; because it’s easier to try to try than to do — you’ve basically condemned yourself to lose.

The best explicit illustration of this phenomenon I’ve seen was in The Hustler (1961), a film where Paul Newman stars as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a troubled pool shark. In the scene I’m referring to, Fast Eddie very nearly defeats the best in the biz — one Minnesota Fats — before going down in a self-destructive spiral. It’s a great moment. Here’s the aftermath (Bert Gordon, who’s been in this business a long time, ends up being a manager of sorts for Eddie):

Bert Gordon: Eddie, is it all right if I get personal?

Fast Eddie: Whaddaya been so far?

Bert Gordon: Eddie, you’re a born loser.

Fast Eddie: What’s that supposed to mean?

Bert Gordon: First time in ten years I ever saw Minnesota Fats hooked… really hooked. But you let him off.

Fast Eddie: I told you I got drunk.

Bert Gordon: Sure you got drunk. You have the best excuse in the world for losing; no trouble losing when you got a good excuse. Winning… that can be heavy on your back, too, like a monkey. You’ll drop that load too when you got an excuse. All you gotta do is learn to feel sorry for yourself. One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all, especially the born losers.

Fast Eddie: Thanks for the drink.

A loser projects to the probable endgame. One hears (roughly) this line of reasoning all the time: “I want to be a writer, but odds are that I won’t be a world-class writer or even an exceptional one — at best I’ll probably end up spitting out five hundred horribly mundane words a week covering local politics in Minneapolis, for God’s sake — and do I really want to put in all the hours, do I really want to grind — for that? I think I’ll take my chances elsewhere…”

Of course it’s important to be able to nip dead-end prospects in the bud, for otherwise you’d be wasting all kinds of time and energy. But losers do this all the time. Why?

The answer, I think, is because it feels prudent to stand back from people who have effectively committed their lives to hapless mediocrity. Why not wait instead; why not take one’s chances elsewhere?

The idea has a lot of appeal. It’s difficult to commit oneself to something, a career for instance, if all you see is the most likely unexceptional scenario ten years down the road. Why bother? Why not wait until you’re so excited about something, so passionate, that not devoting your life to it would hardly even occur to you?

Well, the fact is that the world turns, and if your internal timepiece doesn’t get wise to that idea, you’ll never be able to catch up to the people whose has.

It reminds me of the nameplate my dad always had on his desk. On one side (facing the visitor) was his name, naturally, but facing him was the phrase, “Have a sense of urgency.” I thought that was a strangely uninspiring thing to have to look at all day. But it turns out to be very good advice: every act of ingenuity has at its core some demanding constraints, and if you don’t have any handy, you might as well cook one up.

A loser rests on his laurels. I once asked a winner — a smart, healthy, happy guy worth more than twenty million dollars — to name his greatest accomplishment, and he said “I haven’t done anything yet.” A bit of rhetorical flare there, but the point is that a loser has the opposite attitude: he is constantly recalling his latest accomplishment, either publicly (usually wrapped in modesty or nonchalance) or to himself.

It’s a common misconception, I think, to assume that losers are unhappy, or that they invariably have a low self-esteem. Quite the contrary: losers keep their egos fat with constant snacks. And they’re all the more satiable as they age.

Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. It seems that that’s true, but with the following proviso: some men do eke out contentment, and they get there by gradually ratcheting down their expectations. Their appetites fade. They compromise, and rationalize, and eventually settle.

That’s the loser’s consolation prize.