The art of turning losing into winning

Updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri November 4, 2016

Story highlights

It can be hard to see in the moment, but every loss is a catalyst for something new

A moment of concession is also a chance at redemption for the loser

The sooner you can figure out why you lost, the sooner you can refocus on what matters

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN) —  

Nobody likes to lose. (Weight or virginity perhaps being the exception.) Whether it’s a game of poker, the affections of another or an election, a loss can feel like an embarrassing stain that won’t come out. Or like a medical condition we need to quickly treat with a rematch, with a pint of ice cream or by declaring the whole thing rigged.

But there are many silver linings in the dark clouds of loss, and when you total them up, losing can start to look a lot more like winning.

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In 1960, Richard Nixon lost a very close and bitter presidential election amid accusations (by others, not himself) of voter fraud in some states. But Nixon took the high road: “I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that … (if) he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours, too.” It was a calculated move that paved the way to his election in ‘68. He could have made a stink, but instead he took a longer view and saw the seeds of a comeback planted in the soil of that defeat.

Every loss, no matter the size and scope, opens opportunities to still come out ahead. That’s not just good for your ego; it’s just plain good for you.

The act of concession

Common courtesy calls for a handshake between winner and loser after a contest. It’s a simple gesture that holds a lot of meaning. It is an exercise in defusing any lingering animosity. It makes it possible for both parties to move on with dignity.

To refuse to acknowledge the accomplishment of the winner is to give birth to a grudge. And nothing good, for either side, ever comes out of a lingering grudge.

But the moment of concession is also a chance at redemption for the loser. It allows them to be a role model of humility and grace. It proves them nobler than their loss might suggest. Conceding is actually a power move demonstrating that you are not defined by losing. You are bigger than that.

“A tree is best measured when it is down, and so it is with people,” wrote the poet and author Carl Sandburg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a man who had his share of wins born out of deep losses.

To lose an election – a very public defeat that can be personally devastating – raises the stakes enormously. The act of concession there is both necessary for a peaceful transition of power and an opportunity for the loser to show everyone that he or she is sagacious enough to put the greater good above all else.

One of the best concession speeches ever given, presidential or otherwise, was delivered in 1952 by Adlai Stevenson. “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties,” he said. “I urge you all to give to General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine.” The New Yorker’s political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg called Stevenson “the most beautiful loser.”

By contrast, Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the US women’s national soccer team, called her triumphant opponents “cowards” after her team lost to Sweden at the Olympic quarterfinal game in Rio this summer. The rebuke to her unsportsmanlike behavior went beyond the ire of fans; the US Soccer Federation suspended her for six months and terminated her contract with the team. For failing to transcend her loss, she doubled it.

Losing is learning

Anyone who plays chess, or nearly any game of strategy, knows that the more you play, the more you learn how to win. And if you play someone who is better than you (and therefore find yourself mostly losing), you will learn a lot more about winning. Every defeat brings you one step closer to success.

Thinking about loss that way – as chess pieces on the board – is a helpful metaphor for making losing less personal, too. Losing some contest doesn’t make you a loser. You are still you, not whatever challenge was lost.

You don’t need to go far back for political examples to illustrate this point. Hillary Clinton faced stinging defeats in the 2008 presidential race and in her failed efforts to pass national health care legislation in the mid-1990s. Part of her narrative today is that losing on health care only focused her resolve to increase access to children, which she accomplished for 8 million of them with the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. And clearly, her 2016 campaign strategy and ground game were greatly informed by lessons learned from her defeat eight years ago.

The sooner you can dust yourself off and figure out why you lost, the sooner you’ll be able to refocus on what matters and – now more experienced – win. In a Buddhist context, we will continue to be reincarnated until we can break the cycle of unknowing; each of our lives holding the keys to one door closer to enlightenment or another farther away.

Winning and losing are false distinctions

The idea that losing is a necessary part of winning begins to blur the lines of what is a loss and what is a win. A victory can have unforeseen consequences that feel more like a loss over time (which is why people say “be careful what you wish for”). And, conversely, the loser now will be later to win, as Bob Dylan put it.

There are countless examples of this phenomenon. Many lottery winners face personal difficulties they attribute to their windfall. Individuals with devastating mental and physical challenges often describe how overcoming them made them stronger for it. And maybe that awful breakup made it possible to find true love.

This yin-and-yang way of seeing the world, in which good and bad are so entwined that they are contained in one another, is beautifully illustrated in an ancient Taoist story about a farmer whose horse runs away. The lost horse, which seems like a setback, causes something that seems like an advantage, which then causes something that seems bad and so on.

The point is that we should really question the reality of a win or loss, knowing that time and circumstance have a way of making them become the opposite.

Rise from the ashes

Losing can also be the catalyst of a new beginning. The higher the stakes of the loss, the greater opening it creates for a restart, a reinvention, a fresh beginning in another direction. Examples of coming back strong after reaching a breaking point or one of life’s curveballs, to mix my sports metaphors, are so numerous that CNN Health has a series devoted to them, called Turning Points.

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The phoenix is the mascot of winning losers everywhere. Take a moment to pause in the ashes of a loss to contemplate what new, amazing life can grow out it. That’s a powerful consolation prize.

Jimmy Carter is beloved the world over despite a presidency that experts and conventional wisdom deemed a failure. His legacy is solidified by a post-presidential life of great deeds including international diplomacy, building homes for the homeless and nearly eradicating deadly diseases. Losing re-election in 1980 brought about a 36-year winning streak.

True grit

Finally, there are some virtues that grow more easily out of the compost of losing. Humility is an obvious one. Empathy is another, as loss creates bonds with, and therefore is useful to, others facing a similar loss. And when you expand your perspective and understanding around loss, you become wiser, another virtue to have in your resiliency tool kit.

Then there is grit. For even if there are no clear lessons learned from a loss or no upsides that later emerge, at the very least, you can learn how to deal with it more effectively. Because eventually, another loss will come, and you want to be ready.

The development of such fortitude is encapsulated by my favorite line in one of my favorite novels, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The story chronicles the western migration of many farmers during the Great Depression, a period of profound losing for many Americans.

One of the setbacks for the main characters, the Joad family, is when their car breaks down, again. They don’t have the means to fix it, and a pall is cast over the group until the grandmother snaps them out of it. “This here bearing went out. We didn’ know it was goin’, so we didn’ worry none. Now she’s out an’ we’ll fix her. An’ by Christ that goes for the rest of it.”

The thicker your skin, the more perspective you have, the more you improve yourself – and the more you’ll be winning as you wrestle, as always, with losing.