Should we avoid losing?

Freud is famous for all kinds of weird reasons. I believe it is more of a reflection on society than it is on Freud. He got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. One of the things that he managed to articulate incredibly well is this simple concept: we are driven by wanting pleasure and avoiding pain. In this simple equation, avoiding pain is much more important. In other words, we will forego pleasure in order to avoid pain. I remember learning that lesson when I was 7: I am sure I’ve done a lot to learn it through my own mistakes, but what got really etched into my brain was my cat’s behaviour. My lovely cat, she was probably about 5 months old then, got on top of the kitchen counter while no one was looking. I may have been an accomplice in her trespassing. She speedily made her way to the divine smelling milk that was getting heated up on the hob. As she put her pus into the pan, she must have burnt herself off the edge of the pot. She jumped right down with a loud meow. She didn’t get seriously hurt. What fascinated me though is that she never went near the hob again. Ever. Even if I put her regular cat food bowl on the switched off cold hob. She would just proudly sit there and wait for me to put it back where it belongs. My cat made a decision – and it was final. Avoiding pain is key.

mindfulness fear of failure losing

If you come to associate something with pain, you will probably fear it to some extent. So the question is: should you be afraid of losing and associate it with pain? On the one hand, it means that you will avoid losing. Is that the bottom line though? Winning isn’t the same as never losing.

I don’t know whether losing in some shape or form is part of the obstacle course. Maybe you can just get through a life of poetry in motion without ever losing. I don’t think I can think of any examples of it though. It is important to remember that the people we think of when we think of success generally have some control of what is put out in the world about them. So we are looking at a highlight reel. However, considering some really famous actors, politicians and business people – it is easy to think of things that were outright flops. Cringy films, awkward public statements, bad investments, a personal life that could be on Jeremy Kyle – it all seems part of everyone’s journey.

As somebody who has a clear sense of agency and whatever control that humans can have over their own lives, I envisage life as a series of option trees. Every time there is a fork in the road – that’s when life is shaped. Moments of choice are what shapes that part of our lives that we can control. However, I have been making the assumption that if I make the right choices, I will never experience losing. Hence, losing equals bad choice – my bad choice. I am starting to question that assumption. 

It is important to take a step back and consider what we call losing. What do we call failure? Is failing simply falling short of our expectations? In that case, for anybody who likes philosophy and mindfulness, it is immediately obvious that losing happens in our heads – not in real life. Expectations are great, but a dose of humility can be a real treat when we get so carried away so as to believe that we are owed our preferences at all times.

Not to sugar coat it – because it is true – but losses now can mean large gains later. While that’s a metaphor for our experience, it is quite literally a description of an investment: debit now for credit later. To continue with the investment analogy what really matters is how you compound it. Does a loss mean new learning and information that adds to your overall game or does it mean debilitating poison that stops you from carrying on? It is clear that the latter option is better. So maybe being afraid of losing in and of itself is damaging. I don’t know for certain that losing is unavoidable. A consultant psychiatrist I used to work with and revere used to use this metaphor: if you want to box, prepare to get punched. 

It’s not easy though, to find a balance. If you focus too much on being OK with losing, you will get too comfortable with low standards. This seems to logically make sense. There’s an interesting analogy I would like to draw. I have discussed the Stoic attitude to death in this article. Essentially, not fearing death is one of the most liberating things that a person can do. This goes against all logic: surely, if you stop fearing death you are more likely to die? Yes and no. It seems that literal life-or-death situations are thankfully exceedingly rare for most people. Unless you actively seek out dangerous situations, you are unlikely to die prematurely because you adopt this belief. However, you are more likely to take small risks – as now, they are framed in this bigger perspective and seem not that huge at all. So could it be that by de-vilifying failure, it is possible to make better decisions rather than worse ones? 

If you focus too much on always winning, losing becomes too scary to deal with. I don’t think it is better to assume that losing is inevitable than to assume it is possible to avoid it. Assuming anything is always risky business though necessary to simplify things. Sometimes we will lose because the timing isn’t right, sometimes it will be completely beyond our control – but we have to keep our eyes on that part of it that is within our control. I think the key is to not think of losing as detracting from your final wins – that are surely ahead of us. Winning is a long game and losing is just a lesson that refines our approach and let’s us know how to do better next time. Failure is a form of constructive criticism or a reflection of conditions beyond our control. Should we be afraid of failure? All in all, I think it is too high a price to pay as it constricts our ability to get to the big wins. Should we avoid losing? I don’t even know if that’s completely necessary. It’s not the actual end result. If you make a P&L statement analogy, high costs don’t mean no profit.

In medical ethics, they often talk about an act of commission and acts of omission. In other words, to act and to not act are equally consequential. In the medical context it is something like this: you cannot euthanise a person by actively injecting potassium chloride in their veins, but you can allow someone to die by choosing to not instigate active treatment (in most parts of the world). In our culture, we have come to see failure as a negative consequence of an act of commission. Doing something outside of what is prescribed is an act of commission, meaning it takes more deliberation and implies more responsibility. It is much more likely to cause strong emotions if it doesn’t go right than ending up with the same result from doing nothing. So what about acts of omission? The definition of failure has to allow for acts of omission. I think failing to invest in something worthwhile or to tell someone you love them is as bad as investing with poor returns or being rejected. However, if we only concentrate on avoiding losing, we are bound to miss out.

Moving from Freud to Frankl, it’s important to consider the meaning of failure. I think the visceral fear of failure comes from the meaning people have been conditioned to attach to failure: you are failing because you aren’t good enough. I mean you may as well take a gun and shoot your sense of self. What is enough? Enough is completely in our heads. Maybe you are failing because you aren’t that good yet. It’s describing the same facts, but the way it makes you feel is completely different. A much better question to ask would be: how can I use this? Looking at failure from more than one angle instead of fixating on a bunch of assumptions is going to help. If you can make use of it, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Our brains are somehow wired to move towards the thing we think about the most. Those who survive car accidents tell how they could only think about the thing that they crashed into – rather than thinking of the gap that they may have been able to drive through safely. Budgeting for the downside is good, but once a decision is made, it has to be a fleeting thought at the back of your mind. You can’t focus on avoiding failure and expect success. Even in those forms of financial investments where avoiding losses is the foundation of all success, the game is to put yourself in situations where losses are least likely – rather than trying to predict them, e.g. in trading. In venture capital, it’s the opposite – you only need one smashing success. While we can’t be completely unaware of our surroundings, the focus has to simply be on winning.

I think it is time to start letting go of the fear of losing because that way we’re risking missing out on something really great. Losing requires humility to accept our own mistakes non-judgementally and use them. Only this way, we have a chance of winning in the long term.

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