The End of Winning
Why the future belongs to losers
by Tim Leberecht
If we want a true reset after this crisis, and not go back to “normal,” we need to do much more than reexamine shareholder value, profit maximization, and other business fundamentals. We need to loosen our attachments to money and power. Deeper still, we need to rethink winning — and turn the very concept on its head.
We all know winners, in commercials and in real life. We spot them at airports where they perform ostentatiously important phone calls. We sit across from them in meetings. We meet them online. They know the right people, have amazing friends, and go to amazing places. They are entrepreneurs who made their passion their business. Even their occasional (and always inconsequential) defeats look beautiful on Instagram.
But the fact is that winning as we’ve known it really isn’t sustainable. It’s time to think more about losing. To become better at losing. Maybe even love losing.
As Muhammad Ali famously said, “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right.”
Failing is not the same as losing
Just to be clear: Losing is not failing. Start-up culture led us to recognize “failing,” especially if we fail “fast” or fail “forward.” There are now things like Fuckup Nights, a series of public confessions from managers who failed. But that is not what I’m talking about. Failing and losing are not synonymous. You may be able to “fail fast” before a quick pivot — while losing can be agonizingly slow, with no possibility of full recovery. What has failed can be fixed; what is lost is lost.
Let’s be honest: losing — control, face, status, job, power, wealth — remains anathema at the workplace.
Winners insist they are right because they have the data. They are always right because whoever wins is right. Often, these winners are white men who have made their careers because they have willingly benefited from their privileges; because they have pushed forward at the right moment (that is, perpetually), asserted themselves; interrupted others, especially women and minorities, at meetings or social occasions; spoke louder than everyone else in the room, with a deep voice and firm conviction.
Basically, people like me.
Where does that obsession with winning come from?
From our earliest days, we are told that there is no good alternative to winning. As kids, we compete for attention in our families, for grades and friends at school, and for victories in sports. Later, as we enter the world of work, we learn we must succeed, or aim for success — which is just winning by a slightly more polite name. Management literature is full of instructions for “how to win a customer,” “win a pitch,” or “how to win in the stock market.”
For decades, we’ve been narrowing the space in which people can lose without social stigma. The result is a society that views the “art of the deal” as the highest art of all, where the winners are the best dealmakers, and where everybody gets only what they pay for. We have normalized a transactional, zero-sum view of the world. There is a straight line from this world view to Donald Trump: “We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning,” he promised. And the worst of Trump’s insults is simply: “Loser.”
It is fair to assume that, going forward, losing will become our new modus operandi.
COVID-19 has served as a stark reminder that ultimately we are all losers. It has brought social and actual death to the center of our societies, along with economic damage on a scale many of us had not seen before: The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly half of the global workforce is at risk of losing livelihoods. In the US alone, more than 40 million people have claimed unemployment benefits, job losses unprecedented since the Great Depression.
The ILO predicts “a triple shock” as the virus is destroying employment, disrupting education and training, and making it harder to start or change jobs. More than one in six young people is out of work due to COVID-19. Young women have been especially hit hard. One in five have stopped work since the onset of the pandemic. Will these jobs ever come back? Who knows, especially given that automation may replace up to 50% of workers in the next two decades.
It is fair to assume that, going forward, losing will become our new modus operandi.
In fact, in the future, we’ll be losing even more visibly, all of the time. We’re going to lose the stability of full-time employment; we’re going to lose the promise of linear, progressive careers; we’re going to lose status, authority, and control in super-flexible, hybrid workplaces, and in increasingly flat, networked organizations.
We will see many jobs disappear and employment cycles shorten. Many of us will find ourselves at a disadvantage competing for maximum efficiency with ever smarter machines. Machines simply stop functioning; they can fail, but they never lose.
But rather than accede to the pressure to become smart machines ourselves, we can instead embrace our ability to lose. Unlike machines, we can choose to act morally, even if it’s not worth it by the usual winners’ standards. We can choose to have arguments that can’t be won. We can rage against the dying of the light. Machines don’t fight for hopeless causes, and winners don’t either. The rest of us should.
We can waste our time, we can aim higher than any skilled winner would deem sensible. (As the American journalist I. F. Stone replied when asked, “How can you keep working so hard when no one is listening to you?”: “I think that if you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.”)
And then, as we face losing at a massive scale, we can re-engineer our society to accommodate us, the losers, and be proud of it. The first good news is: we have a policy instrument to address not winning, or at least not right this minute (or before we were even born) — Universal Basic Income.
Strategies for losers: Universal Basic Income
Universal Basic Income means that every citizen, regardless of their economic situation, receives the same minimum amount from the state to secure their livelihood.
The idea in itself is not new: the English humanist Thomas More proposed it in 1516 in his book Utopia, and even the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman (in the form of a “negative income tax”), US President Lyndon B. Johnson, and others had proposed an unconditional basic income to fight poverty at its roots. Most recently, Andrew Yang, the US presidential candidate, made it the core element of his campaign. In the US, Project100 is giving 1000 dollars per month to 100,000 Americans. In Germany a similar crowdfunded initiative earned widespread attention, and Spain is also considering introducing UBI. Even the Financial Times, in the wake of the pandemic, suggested that it might be time to seriously consider UBI. The economist Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, is confident that UBI’s time has finally come.
UBI is the perfect policy for losers. Now, this is in fact one of the main philosophical objections typically leveled at UBI: that it would lead to idleness, and people would be less inclined to work. However, this objection has been widely debunked. Research shows that people are more inclined to work when their essential needs are taken care of. Moreover, UBI recipients reported “stronger confidence in their future and their participation in society.”
The second objection is that UBI is not meritocratic, because people who don’t work would receive the same as those that dod. But that’s not true, because UBI would just be the base in most models, allowing people to earn more income on top of it.
UBI is not the great equalizer, but it might serve as a great humanizer, by decoupling our societal value and our self-esteem from our economic value, by making the idea of competition less consequential, and less existential.
To quote Andrew Yang: “The logic of the meritocracy is leading us to ruin, because we are collectively primed to ignore the voices of the millions getting pushed into economic distress by the grinding wheels of automation and innovation. We figure they’re complaining or suffering because they’re losers.”
“In a world of true abundance you shouldn’t have to work to justify your life,” as the writer Sam Harris once put it.
With UBI, we can still compete, but it matters less whether we win or lose. Which, in effect, is mostly good news for losers. With UBI, losing is no longer taboo.
Another strategy for losers: melancholy
UBI may be an effective policy response, but let’s face it, losing is personal. And if we truly want to nurture a culture of losing, it must start with each of us.
Losing makes us human. Losing makes us us.
“I am a clown, and I collect moments,” says Hans, the main character in Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel The Clown. In post-war Germany he is the big loser among the war’s losers. He is at home at the circus, where laughter and crying go hand in hand, but outside he remains a stranger. In the end, he sits as a begging street musician by the train station, and his descent is finally sealed. But at least he has not given in to the temptations of conformism.
A clown like Hans is the loser in us all. The clown, that’s us, in our existential fear. The clown embodies the knowledge that the more we want to win, the more we descend into self-parody. The clown epitomizes all the defeats that lie ahead of us. The clown has already lost, when we have not even yet realized that we are in fact losing.
The clown is, in short, a melancholic.
Melancholy is alien to a business world dominated by assertiveness and swift action. Melancholic leaders or workers are considered losers! And that’s actually a fair assessment. Because melancholy is the awareness that things are futile, “utterly meaningless!” And at the same time melancholy mourns a past that no longer is, yearns for something that matters, something that brings us alive.
Melancholy, it strikes me, is the fitting sentiment for our time.
For a few weeks we have all been united by the realization that we are not invincible, that we are not in control, and never were. That three-year plans are a thing of the past the very moment they are written.
The enemy of beautiful business is not uncertainty, but control. Why is control bad? Because it prevents us from life. When we lose control, life happens to us. If there’s one thing we want from business in the future, after this crisis, it’s this: we want to be more alive.
A beautiful business is full of life, symbiotic with life, and brings us alive. It is open to messiness and unpredictability, knowing that’s the only way to access new energy that can spur innovation. A business is coming alive when it is no longer interested in seeking control, and instead completely absorbed by the present moment.
Unlike cynicism, melancholy grants us dignity and authorship; it allows us to live in sorrow and use it as material for new creations. Cynicism is a destructive force, melancholy creative. Cynicism dehumanizes, melancholy humanizes.
It is precisely because the big picture is so pointless that melancholics find the little things so endearing. Small is beautiful. Only with the humility of melancholy can we build beautiful businesses. Or, in the words of Fernando Pessoa,the melancholic Portuguese writer: “Every gesture is a revolutionary act.”
Let’s start this business revolution with more beautiful gestures.
So, what does this mean in concrete terms?
Well for one, it means ritual.
And finally, ritual
Last year, in a coffee shop in Bernal Heights, a neighborhood of San Francisco, I met Caroline, a self-proclaimed “Book Doula.” Her job is to help (prospective) authors bring a book into the world. The Book Doula assists those who are “pregnant with an idea” (who “have a book in them”), develop it, and finally put it on paper. It is work more similar to that of a therapist than that of a ghostwriter.
As a rule, Book Doulas are not mentioned when the book gets published. Often, however, they are the feather on the scales. The relationship between them and the author and book midwife. The writer has to give up control and surrender to the book doula so he or she can do his or her work.
I met with Caroline to discuss my book project, which at that point was nothing more than a fleeting hunch. Caroline immediately asked the right, probing questions, from the publisher’s and reader’s perspective.
So I was all the more surprised when she, at some point in our conversation — I forgot how it came up — told me about her side job: she is a deathbed singer; a member of a choir that sings the last songs to dying people shortly before they take their last breath. She says she is “summoned” three or four times a month, and her choir goes to the hospital or to the person’s home, queues up or sits at the deathbed of the dying person and sings only for them.
Sometimes the dying still have the strength to tell the singers the songs they would love to hear, but more often than not the choirmaster has to make that choice. The repertoire of the choir is large and ranges from Schumann’s songs to “My Way.” It is not an easy job, Caroline admitted, and the singers need a good deal of emotional resilience.
The book doula becoming a death doula: It’s rituals like these that help us cope with loss. In fact, any ritual marks the passage from something we leave behind to something new we enter into.
Ultimately, we are all losers, but who knows? In the end, someone who won’t have better things to do, or a melancholic who has time on their hands, has nothing to gain from it, someone who lives on Universal Basic Income, will be there by our side and sing for us, helping us to gently let go.
A humane society is one where we can lose without being losers. A humane company makes losing part of its strategy. A humane person loses with dignity and class, and helps others lose when there is nothing to gain.
Universal Basic Income, Melancholy, and Ritual. At the societal, organizational, and individual level, we have the means to learn how to lose, to learn how to love to lose. To nurture a culture of losing. To change the nature of the game. And no longer play only to win.
All strategies for losers have one thing in common: Only when we are humbled by defeat, when we cede control, when our hearts break, when we lose ourselves, can we do what these crazy times demand of us: to give it all.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.
The Journal of Beautiful Business is the online magazine by the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.
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