Winning is a core attribute of sports. It is encapsulated in its DNA. It motivates, it creates a purpose, it provides returns. But is winning-centricity the right philosophy in companies or societies? The concept of winning is quite challenged lately, by many theoreticians or specialists in various domains, from business to education.
Is winning a chimera? Is it just a habit (eventually, a bad one?), something we might have learnt in childhood and now we realize there are no positive outcomes beyond it? Many people in sports would raise an eyebrow. Or both. However, talking about facts, let’s take a look into neuroscience. As no-one would dare to argue, in our days, the uber-alles, the tool sent to humanity to answer all its questions, from viewing someone’s dreams to being sure why a bag of snacks is taken off the shelf; namely, the almighty fRMI! As scientists say, and we hope they are right, winning generates testosterone and increase the level of dopamine, which induces pleasure and motivational salience (as the psychology professor Ian Robertson, founding Director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, writes in his book The Winner Effect, 2013: “Winning increases testosterone, which in turn increases the chemical messenger dopamine, and that dopamine hits the reward network in the brain, which makes us feel better.”). Hence, winning is not a soap bubble, it seems it really works on our brains.
Listening to life-stories of famous sportspeople, winning is a clear leitmotif. From Michael Jordan to Hagi, from Mourinho to Djokovici, they all share or shared this desire to win.
Why do we have here a debate on winning? I will touch three points:
Winning may motivate a few, while being unreachable for many. It is a no brainer that there are much more followers than those enjoying the medals around their necks. Could you be motivated when you know you will not win?
I think there are two approaches on the above concern. On one hand, in a competition one does not always compete against the others. Sometimes this is true, but not always. Even when you relate to others, you might not focus on the top winners, but on those within your range of capabilities and expectations (see the Goldilocks principle). But you can always compete against…yourself. It matters to overcome your past, to get better, to meet your goals. The others, the environment, could act as stimuli, as examples, as motivators. But winning per se should not always be defined, in real life, by being the #1 in your domain. On the other hand, as you improve, as you practice, as you keep getting better on whatever you do, you might challenge the top competitor. Why not? Successful people in all areas advise us to aim high. Dreams could come true. Setting a high standard doesn’t mean dealing with the impossible. Therefore, as skepticism is not among the best friends of champs, think positively and, yes, get ready to work really hard to get there.
Winning is not the right purpose in modern societies & companies. Indeed, organizations and communities tend to value more the collaborative environments, the win-win cultures. These values and practices may have a better impact on the individual, improve the life-balance and open up for bigger goals in life. It is said that winning is temporary, it is specific to the finite games (as opposed to the infinite ones – see Sinek). What comes after a win? Many champs have faced severe depressive stages after major competitions they won, as they became purposeless in a way. This perspective seems quite robust and may erode the rationale behind a winning-oriented culture. I think this is a hot topic for the public agenda for many years to come. In mediating the two apparently opposite perspectives, I would argue that winning should be regarded a bit more open. Winning, and the hard work behind it, create premises for a much broader personal development. Stories of successful people in sports go beyond particular competitions or titles (watch The Playbook by Netflix, 2020). They talk about friendship, about courage, about belief in people’s capacity to overcome barriers, about ethics and respect. Winners are role models, they influence others and lead the way for future generations.
Winning and competitions are challenged during the process of children education. Education trends are clashing like streams in a stormed ocean. Indeed, after centuries of relative inertia, despite remarkable changes in societies and technologies, schools and the act of teaching seem quite dormant. In this context, there are researchers arguing that competition is not the right approach in educating kids, mainly in their first school years. Helping them work together, share ideas, communicate, will be of better impact than the individualistic mindset of overcoming the others. The others are partners and not opponents. Even in sports competitions, kids learn the basic skills in non-competitive environments, without rankings and medals. This approach may lead to better societies and a shift in the way we relate to the world. It is not going to be an easy process, but it may lead to an improved humankind, to more responsible organizations and wiser decisions regarding human rights, climate change, saving wildlife or preserving our planet. A long shot but worth considering it. What will be the role of winning in this scenario? Probably it will be more related to sports or other forms of entertainment. This vision may seem a bit wishful, idealistic. It may sound closer to religions or to some oriental life philosophies than to the currently dominant capitalism architecure and its profit-oriented companies. But building a better world will most certainly have a lot to do with the way we educate the young generations. In such a context, I do believe that the short-term me-winning may be reconsidered and traded-off for a bigger purpose, for leveraging on synergies and common goals, striving together for we-all-win ultimate destinations.
The pros and cons of winning are far from being concluded. No winner in this instance, so far. Nuances matter. I think that, for a long time to come, teachers, mentors or managers will be key in promoting the right values, in helping students or juniors maximize their capabilities and improve their lives. Winning may feed arrogant egos and prove noxious in social environments. Or, it may motivate people become better persons, deal with challenges and occasional failures, build trust and respect. Hopefully, the latter will prevail.