Charles Wang
15 Sep 2016

Never lose again

Toastmasters Speechcompetition season is upon us again! I'm not a competitive person by nature: Idon't play any competitive sports, and I prefer solo activities (bicycling,hiking, reading). But ever since I started competing 3 years ago, I've always participated,and I've never lost.

 

Here is how I didit.

 

Onesemester years ago, when I was in college, I suddenly decided I want to be amodel student: sit in the front roll, listen carefully, take lots ofhand-written notes, and really engage with the material. Not only that, I evendecided I would always answer the instructor's questions, whether I knew theanswer or not, because that's what model students do.

 

I decidedto start in the first class of the semester, Biol 200. I was the first throughthe door, and instead of grabbing a seat with my friends, I walked to the frontof the class, and sat myself down on the first row, right in front of theinstructor. I listened actively, took notes studiously, and pictured myselfwrestling with the textbook to really "engage with the material".This went fantastic, for all of 30 min, until the instructor asked a simple A/Bquestion, slightly beyond the class material. It's one of those questions withunintuitive answers, that you had to think about to solve.

 

I didn'tthink.

 

I wentfor participation.

 

"A"I blurted out, the first person to respond. The disappointment in theinstructor's face as he looked at me, I might as well have told him I decidedin that moment to . "Wrong, 'B' is the answer I was looking for." Hethen turned to the board to explain exactly where my reasoning had failed.Suddenly I understood why it's so hard to increase participation in classrooms.I had just publicly failed, and lost the respect of my instructor and peers. Myears started to burn with my shame.

 

But itwasn't over, from somewhere behind me, over my left shoulder, I heard aderisive snort fill the awkward silence of them room. I had just been attacked.I had never fully appreciated how much meaning can be packed into such a simplesound. He might as well have said out loud, "Good job dumbass!" or"Wow that was such a simple question! I can't believe how stupid you are!And now the whole world knows it too!"

 

It stung.I heard nothing for the rest of the class. I wanted to turn and face myassailant, but the moment had passed. And what could I say? "Hey at leastI tried! You just sit there and pretend to know everything!" That justseems to play into their hand, admitting I had made a mistake, that I fuckedup.

 

We've allhad painful moments like this. The sting of public shame, the burn ofembarrassment for all the world to see. No more, we swore to ourselves, we willnever fail publicly or say anything stupid ever again.

 

So westuck to safe answers we knew were true, we tried not to stand out, and westopped taking chances, because we all know where that road leads: the valleyof embarrassment and dying alone.

 

But doesthis benefit anyone? Our bullies had their laugh, and moved on. Those whowitnessed our blunder have all forgotten, because they are far more interestedin their own achievements and failings, just like you, and have no time tometiculously track other's failings. We no longer embarrass ourselves, sure,but at what price? How do we expect to grow and explore and discover if we fearstanding out?

 

But howdo you take away the sting of public failure? How do you start taking chancesand competing if there is a chance you might lose?

 

It wasn'tuntil I started competing in Toastmasters speech contests that I learned how tothink about winning and losing.


"Inever lose. I win or I learn." -unknown

 

To me,this quote captures perfectly 3 ideas I've realized over the years:


1. It's not about winning or losing: it's about learning to give your best. Yes, there is value to comparing yourself to others, but too often, we fall into the trap of comparing in order to feel superior or inferior to others. This leads to us handing the power over our happiness to outcomes over which we have little direct control.


Do this instead: focus all your energy into the present moment, andput forth the very best version of yourself. Do it as if your life depends onthis moment! Then regardless of outcome, you can say without reservation"I held back nothing, and gave it my very best." That is somethingeveryone can say with pride, win or lose. I find this mindset is especiallyeffective in dealing with Table Topic contest questions. Meditate before you goup to get into the flow state.


2Winning is a limited teacher: if you want to be the best, start by losing. If you win anything effortlessly, you might gain attention, praise and respect in the short term, but you end up no wiser. In fact you'll feel like a fraud. The first time I won, I felt like a fraud: I had no idea which parts of my speech worked and which didn't. As I accepted the praise and congratulations of those in the club, I felt empty, like I'm just pretending to be a winner. Having lost plenty of times since then, I can now say with confidence that I earn my wins.


Losing teaches you how to win. So if you want to learn, lose. If youwant to learn faster, lose more often. If you do that and embrace what youlearn from each loss, winning becomes inevitable. Think of it like this: whenyou have nothing left to learn, you win.


3. Embrace curiosity, not fear. Curiosity leads to growth. Fear of failure is natural, especially when you first start to compete. Your fear is no enemy though, it is merely trying to help you survive, even if it is maladapted to modern society.


Insteadof focusing on the fear, focus on curiosity: I'm always curious what lessons Iwill learn after each competition. And because the competition is such anemotional experience, the lessons I learn are deeply ingrained in my mind. Sobefore every competition, I feel the fear of public failure, but I also feelthe happy anticipation of the growth that I will experience. And it is thisjoyful curiosity that I pay attention to.

 

Thebest way to experience these ideas is through action. TheBETM Humorous and Table Topics Speech Contests are coming this month. Put theseideas to the test, and experience them for yourself.

 

So whatare you waiting for? Enter the arena. Be open to the experience of thecompetitive journey, and I guarantee you will not lose: you'll win, or you'lllearn.

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