My first book, WIN AT LOSING: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains looks at the surprising benefits of failure. It's an idea I arrived at when trying to teach my two sons how to better deal with losing. From there I decided to seek out athletes, politicians, and executives who've transformed some of their most difficult moments into opportunities for growth. In the slides that follow are some of the stories you'll read.
This is me and my two knuckleheads: Charlie is on the left, and that's Will in the middle. As I said, the genesis of WIN AT LOSING was the fairly universal parental challenge of trying to teach two super-competitive boys the benefits of losing -- something they've both struggled with whether in hockey, school, or golf. Shortly after this photo was taken, Will got frustrated after a bad shot and hurled his 8-iron into a thicket of poison ivy. True story.
Michael Dukakis was one of my favorite people to profile. You may recall he lost in decisive fashion to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election, a campaign defined by sharp personal attacks at Dukakis and his record. Decades later, Dukakis refuses to be bitter. “Look, I’ve had an incredible life,” he says. “Here I am, this Greek kid from Brookline, Mass. I’m a governor of my state three times and my party’s nominee for the presidency. You can’t have this kind of life and blame the system.”
Lucci, a longtime star of the soap opera "All My Children", was nominated for 18 Daytime Emmys and lost every time, only to finally win on the 19th try. "Occasionally I’d be asked, ‘How does it feel to be a loser?’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t feel like a loser,’ she says. "So the best I could do to take away from it was to continue to try to grow, and try to do better, regardless of whether I won.”
Norman's loss in the 1996 Masters was painful not just for him, but for millions of watching at home. Carrying a six-shot lead into the final day, his game unraveled on national television, but the way he handled it won him scores of fans. “It’s very simple,” Norman tells me. “I stood up and embraced the failure of it all. I accepted the fact that one of the most precious things in my whole life, I didn’t get. And in that situation, it really hit home with people.”
Sara Hess (far left) was a crucial member of the 1999 U.S. Women's National Team that captured the Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl. After her soccer career ended with a devastating knee injury, she struggled with both physical pain and a lost sense of identity, only to recover to become a success psychologist. "I wonder what I would have learned had I not gone through all this stuff," she says. "Probably not much."
Dan Jansen was arguably the greatest speed skater of his generation, but he had several devastating losses in the Olympics, most notably when he fell in the 1988 Winter Games just hours after his sister lost her battle with leukemia. He went on to win the gold medal in his final Olympic race in 1994. “There’s no doubt I got more out of losing,” Jansen says. “Losing is what teaches you who you are.”
Columbia University Football
Between 1984-1988, Columbia's varsity football team lost 44 consecutive games, which meant a number of players went their entire careers without winning a single game. Many of those players say the experience shaped them in positive ways winning never could. "People looked at me and said, ‘What was it like to lose for four years?’" says wide receiver Nike Leone, who went on to a successful career in finance. "And I’d say, ‘It was a horrible experience, but I played with my best friends. We weren’t that good, but I didn’t quit and I think I learned a lot.’"
A freak accident as a college freshman almost killed Fay Vincent, and he would never play sports again. As commissioner of Major League Baseball, he was forced to resign when he wouldn't placate owners during a bitter labor dispute. “Nobody likes to leave a public position without at least some light applause,” he says. “I was very disappointed and embarrassed. I loved baseball, and I thought I was doing the right thing for the game.”
The Harsh Realities Of Internet Startups
Seventy-five percent of Internet startups don't make money back for investors, which may explain why no segment of society has a more enlightened view of failure than in Silicon Valley. “What I see among entrepreneurs who fail or experience setbacks is that the most resilient of them look at it as a learning opportunity and they grow from it,” says Dr. Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist in the Bay Area who works with many failed entrepreneurs. “They’re able to constructively reflect on it as a way to develop new skills.”
Ralph Cox (fourth from right, back row) was the last player cut from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal at Lake Placid. He watched the famous "Miracle On Ice" win against the Soviet Union from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had started his minor league hockey career. "Having to find my way out of the darkness was at times a very painful experience, but ninety-five percent of it was incredibly powerful,” Cox says. “Failure, if done properly, is the magical opportunity to create success and happiness.”
Mickelson lost in his 46 attempts to win a major championship, including several in heartbreaking fashion. Even after winning his first in 2004, he says his losses are what continue to drive him. "My career is built on failure," he says. "That has been a motivator for me, because I think how you handle failure is a huge element to becoming successful."