It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you learn.
Winning feels great.
When I was a kid, I collected Pokémon cards, then HeroClix, then comic books, and then.... There was always a "next" something to obsess over or collecting. And as an adult I still go through phases where I'll fixate on a particular hobby or project. That obsession currently is chess.
Let me be clear. I am not good at chess. I learned the rules in kindergarten, and while I've always been interested, I've likely only played 20 times in my life. Last week in COVID lockdown boredom I decided to start playing online. So I played. And I won my first game. And it felt great.
Winning feels amazing–you get a rush of dopamine and feel invincible. Not only are you rewarded on a biochemical level, our entire society is setup on the premise of winning. Win. Be the best. Be the smartest. This story is reinforced throughout our media, our stories, our schools, and our work places.
In chess, there is a ranking system for all players. The higher your score, the better you are. And when you play, you're matched against an opponent who is similarly ranked. After I won a few games I started getting matched against tougher and tougher players. And I started losing. Fuck. I hate losing.
As good it feels to win, losing feels worse than winning feels good.
And the more we hype up the importance of winning, the more we can become afraid to even play the game. As I suffered my first defeats I felt myself hesitant to continue playing. I didn't want to lose. Sure this is a hobby I picked up a few weeks ago, but I didn't want to feel un-smart. I didn't want to have it rubbed in my face that others were better than me.
Tying your identity to your results is a very dangerous thing to do. Try as you might, you can never control the results. It's impossible. So when you tie your self esteem to "how smart you are in relation to others", you're going to eventually encounter people who are smarter than you, and you will suffer. You may even want to stop trying. If you don't try then you can't lose, and if you can't lose, you can't feel stupid. If I don't study for the test and fail, well, it's obvious–I failed because I didn't study. But that's not a reflection of my intellect.
The irony of life is that you only get better from practice. And practice means losing. A lot. Practice does not mean you're perfect all the time, and it certainly doesn't mean you win all the time. You win or you learn. When you lose, you learn, which leads you to winning more in the future. Perfect is unattainable. Instead, focus on measuring yourself by your improvement. Your growth. Your learning.
Measure your success by how much you learn, not by if you win or lose.
Losses become almost more rewarding than winning. With a loss at least there's something to learn. When you focus on growth you realize you can always grow more. Play against a harder opponent, practice more, study more. It's within your control to improve.
Observe your insecurities and deal with them. Don't hide from them. Work through them and past them.
Where are you afraid of losing in your life? This can be with a relationship, a hobby, work and even in your mind. And no matter how "good" you are, there's always room for improvement.
So I'm trying. It's easier said (or written) than done, but the more I am aware of my patterns the more I can shift them. And the next time I lose to Mr. Carvalho from Brazil, it'll be another lesson in my chess education.