Second place is first loser.

This sentence is one of the most ridiculous notions I’ve ever heard. I honestly can’t understand why people would think this way. When you do something you love, you win, even if you come in last. The only way second place is first loser is if your goal isn’t for the love of what you’re doing, but is solely for beating everyone else.

You know what that says to me? It says you’re insecure. It says you don’t measure yourself by your own accomplishments, but only by comparing yourself to others. It says you will spend your life never being happy.

I have been a fan of gymnastics since I was a kid. I have watched every Olympic women’s gymnastics competition since 1992, so I am very familiar with the defeats and victories, struggles and triumphs of the various US teams. I remember the pride in 92 when the women won the team bronze. With Romania and the Soviet Union being unstoppable powerhouses, coming in third was a big accomplishment.

A couple of years ago I happened upon the blog of one of that team’s members. She wrote about how they were all ecstatic about their bronze…until the media got to them. They were asked continually about coming back to try for the gold. Bronze, it seemed, wasn’t enough. This team member became almost embarrassed by her medal. Embarrassed. For earning an Olympic bronze medal. Let that sink in, take all the time you need. Because I don’t know about you, but when I was 17 my biggest achievement was a good hair day.

Americans are used to winning, I get that. We feel the need to be number one in everything (see insecurity commentary above). But continually striving for the best is a bad habit, and a recipe for discontent. When you’re so obsessed with the extrinsic awards that you can’t find value in how far you’ve come, be prepared for major disappointment. Your happiness hinges upon that brief moment when you’re the very best, and ten minutes later the pressure is on to stay there. The high wears off quickly. Trading passion for glory is a fast track to burnout and resentment.

There’s nothing wrong with competing, if it’s kept in perspective. Showing off your skills and talents, challenging yourself to be better, basking in the thrill of performing–these are the benefits to competition. If you win something, it’s just a bonus. I think this obsession Americans have of winning for the sake of winning, and feeling embarrassed or like a loser if you don’t win, is unhealthy. It’s teaching our kids that the outcome is the important part, and the process is nothing more than a way to get there.

Unfortunately, there are very few winners. Most of us try our best but never reach the top level of the podium, literally or metaphorically. Does that mean only 2% of us are great and the rest of us suck? Of course not. Particularly because there are many things in which “great” is in the eye of the beholder. One person loves impressionist landscapes while another thinks cubism is the best. One judge looks for technique while another values passion. One athlete is the fastest on Wednesday but not on Thursday. And no one ever stays on top indefinitely.

Did you know Vincent Van Gogh was a total loser? He sold one painting in his lifetime. Just one. He wasn’t a great artist until after his death, when popular opinion caught up with his style and suddenly his work had merit. Can you imagine if he had gotten discouraged and stopped painting because no one liked his work? But he didn’t paint because he wanted to be famous or important, he painted because he found it rewarding for himself.

When people are driven by internal factors rather than external ones, they always win, because they find joy in what they do. And isn’t that what we are all truly striving for? A life of joy? I decided a very long time ago that I’d rather be happy than rich. In fact, being poor for a long time has been an asset, because it forced me to get creative. And that, in turn, has helped me in my art. Creativity helps in any field of work. I’ve never felt like a winner in my life, but I learned that not winning doesn’t mean I’m a loser.

When I enter art competitions I do so with the expectation that I won’t win anything, but I will show my art and gain confidence that my work has as much merit as anyone else’s. It inspires me to push my own boundaries, define my style, and search for what sets me apart from the rest. My goal in entering competitions isn’t to win, it’s to grow. That is the biggest payoff. If someone compliments my work, I feel amazing. If I do happen to win a prize, I feel humbled that someone else sees potential in me. The prize is never the end goal. I don’t hang my worth on winning, and I think this is the message we need to teach our children. What the world says about you does not determine your worth.

It’s a lesson many Americans could stand to learn.


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