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How to Win When You’re Losing (and Vice Versa)

Few would disagree that winning feels great and losing feels lousy. That is why it is good to know how to win when you’re in the midst of losing, and how to avoid losing when you’re in the midst of winning.

There’s a card game called Spades that our family and friends have played together for more than 30 years. It’s played by 4 people, two against two, and it’s this game that taught me the secrets of winning and losing. Depending on who is playing the game, the experience varies greatly. It all comes down to whether people play the game with their hearts or their egos because this is what determines both the goal of the game and the emotional consequences of the outcome.

When our family members play this game, there’s no such thing as losing. That’s because the primary goal of the game is not to win. More important than winning on the score sheet is having a friendly experience by just playing together. When you play with your heart and with the hearts of others, you simply can’t lose. When the “opponents” you care about to do well, you’re happy for them. When you crush them, you’re more likely to feel grateful for the experience playing than the satisfaction of beating them.

When my wife and I play the game with our best friends, it’s an entirely different experience than when playing with our family members. That is because our friends are highly competitive by nature and very successful in most everything they do. You don’t excel in life without having a robust, competitive ego. The downside is that when the game isn’t going their way, they complain and criticize, and when the game is going their way, they boast. Their competitive egos have an enormous influence on the nature of the game. Playing for friendship is a very different kind of fun than playing to defeat an opponent. Plus, people are less afraid to take risks, adding excitement to a contest without fear of ridicule.

One time, when our 14-year-old son and I were taking on our hyper-competitive friends, they were getting superior cards and completely dominating us, taking great satisfaction in the experience. What they didn’t realize was that we were the true winners, because we were playing a better game than our friends were. What mattered to us more than winning was playing as a team, up or down, as affectionate partners. Our friends’ delight in winning paled in comparison to our delight in our partnership. That’s when I first realized how it was possible to win while losing and to witness can lose while winning.

But how is it that winners can actually lose? By putting the pride of the ego ahead of the affection of the heart. When the heart comes before the ego, the outcome will be rewarding regardless of the score. The heart knows how to truly play, have fun, bond, and enjoy interpersonal connection in ways that the ego doesn’t. When the ego comes ahead of the heart, win or lose, pride stifles the heart’s opportunity for closeness. On the contrary, it’s distancing.

Egos only have two gears – better than or worse than. The job of the ego is to maximize social status as much as possible. Those more elevated on the hierarchies of society enjoy greater benefits than those with lower status. Even though we frown on egotism and arrogance in others, our egos do serve an evolutionary function. But just like an aggressive dog, the ego needs to be both fed and tamed. When the ego is untamed, it will dominate others as much as possible, doing so at the cost of affectionate connections.

When it’s more important to be “better than” someone else, the relationship loses value. This is one reason why some “winners” end up emotionally bereft and having friendships that are more superficial than genuinely close. It’s also quite common for superior players on a sports team to lose to less talented opponents. This tends to happen when the big egos of superior competitors undermine their team’s cohesion, while an opposing team’s greater cohesion overcomes the dis-integrated talent of their opponents. It’s the old adage; United we stand, divided we fall. The intangible power of personal connections, as distinct from obvious talent, has an influence on contests that are often overlooked by competitors.

It’s not as though we need to choose between playing with our hearts or playing with our egos. There’s room for both at the table or on the field. Instead, it’s in how we order and blend them together. To have a winning experience no matter the score, the ego must agree to take a back seat to the heart. When we can teach our egos how to do this, competitions remain playful, fun, and friendly. It’s easier to laugh when mistakes are made. There’s no impulse for complaint or criticism. We can discuss mistakes and learn from them, but without any trace of embarrassment or guilt.

Of course, this simple advice is easier to understand than to practice. Ego habits are hard to break… But here are two tips that will make it easier to change the balance between your ego and your heart. First, keep reminding yourself that the true game you’re playing is about strengthening connections, both with your partner(s) and your opponent(s). The ultimate goal is to feel good about your relationships when the contest is over. Second, become more mindful of the difference between pride and gratitude. When you notice yourself feeling proud (when winning) or dejected (when losing), remember to feel more grateful for the relationships in your midst.

Here’s one last recommendation for changing the experience of a contest with people you care about. Agree that the winner(s) will pay. That might mean doing to dishes, picking up a tab, or covering any other stake in the game. This ritual will have the winner(s) honor their defeated opponent(s) and give the defeated a reason to appreciate the winner(s).

When competing with people we care about, the outcome should be that our relationships are the real winners in the end.

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