Do You Learn More From Winning or Losing?

I was with a very successful former sportsman and national team captain the other day. Someone asked him whether you learnt more from winning or losing. Without hesitation he replied “Winning”. I thought it was a good question especially since in business we have always been told it is OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. We’ve even been told that if you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough. Business expects mistakes or at least disappointments. Like sportsmen or women and sports teams, eventually you will lose to a better player/team. Along the way there will be setbacks so it makes sense to learn from them and no sense that you necessarily learn more from winning than losing. In business the desire to question and evaluate is probably sharpened by losing. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is often trotted out as a reason not to meddle with a winning formula.

It is fair to say that in business, if things are going well you just keep going. Only if things fail do you go through the discipline of understanding why they failed. So I figured he was wrong, certainly in business. You learn more from losing than winning.

Business is not like sport and too often sport is used too simplistically as an analogy for business. In business there is no finishing line or full time whistle, you don’t get to drop under-performing players for the next game. In sport there is often no next match – you lose, you’re out. In business, barring disaster, there is always a next game – next years plan. Decision-making and accountability is clearer in sport – in business it is more consensual, more about collective accountability.

The problem is that this sportsman is also a successful businessman and he was quite clear in his mind that learning more from winning applied just as much to business as it does to sport. So I gave it some more thought. I know this guy well and know that he is highly competitive – yes I know all sportsmen are highly competitive but this guy is really competitive, in everything he does. He hates losing, even a friendly game of golf. “I don’t do losing” is one of his favourite phrases. And that is the clue to what he really means. Obviously in theory you can learn as much from losing as from winning. In theory you would learn the most from winning and losing so you can draw comparisons (scientists would support this – they need some experiments to fail). But that is not the point.

Winning and losing are infectious. The more you win the more you learn to win and the more you lose the more you learn to accept losing. What you learn is only as important as your ability to apply what you learn and get the rest of your team to apply it as well. Who wants to learn from losers? Everyone wants to follow winners. And what attitude is most likely to help you win? “Let’s give this a go – it’s OK if we fail because we’ll learn lots” or “We play to win at all costs – I don’t care what we learn only that we win, after we’ve won we’ll think about improving on the mistakes we made”.

Winners learn more from winning – losers learn more from losing, but they don’t learn to be winners.

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