Do You Feel Destined to Fail? The Science of Losing

Photo by John T on Unsplash

Does life reward some people and not others? Yes, and it appears you can’t escape it as failure is hardwired.

Everyone loves a winner, including science.

There are hundreds of articles discussing the ingredients for success. Losing is attributed to poor life choices, a negative mindset or bad behavior. Those experiencing a string of failures find themselves further victimized by a competitive society hyper focused on success and intent on finding blame.

The message is clear. If you’re not succeeding, it’s your own fault.

But is it?

Winners win and losers just aren’t trying, right? Photo by David Goldsbury on Unsplash

It may come as no surprise that winners win. The question is why?

Swedish researchers Olof Rosenqvist and Oskar Nordstrom Skans analyzed professional golfers and compared those who successfully made the cut in one tournament to those who didn’t. The successful golfers went on to win more tournaments in the future against equally talented competitors, even when there was greater pressure.

This is where most discussion on the subject ends.

What we don’t talk about are those other golfers in the analysis who played well, but got a bad bounce and didn’t make the cut. There were far more subjects who went on to a string of losing tournaments against the few lucky winners. They continued to compete and suffered a statistically significant number of losses.

Fortunate Son

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success explores why certain individuals and groups seem to excel more than others. He attributes the attention we pay high achievers as a type of feedback loop that leads to more wins.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

The dynamic often starts with something outside of our control such as fortunate birth or stroke of luck. The author illustrates how the time of year someone was born can play a pivotal role in a professional athlete’s life.

Gladwell argues that success isn’t assured without hard work, but hard work doesn’t assure success. Achieving your dream requires a good deal of luck and opportunity.

If a child has raw talent to be a concert violinist, they can achieve their goal with about 10,000 hours of practice, a good teacher and a decent instrument.

What is missing from the discussion is that someone without any one of those things is not going to succeed. However, we rely on our belief their failure is absolutely within their control.

We spread this infectious delusion that desire alone can and will always overcome all obstacles. They didn’t dream big enough. They didn’t work hard. We don’t write books about children who have the talent, but are born into a situation where the family can’t afford to pay for lessons or they don’t have enough food to eat and are struggling just to survive.

Instead, society blames the child for not being a winner.

Those losing golfers practiced as much if not more than the recipients of a lucky bounce. Likely, they worked as hard, were optimistic and believed in their dream.

As a result of one bad break, nature may set them up for even more failures.

Success can be yours if you’re lucky.

Unfortunately, society fixates on the notion that success is available to everyone who wants it bad enough, even to those who are unlucky.

Because achievement is in the realm of possibility, no matter how improbable, a loser doesn’t have it because they don’t want to make the necessary sacrifice nor invest the effort.

Someone starting out in life with wealthy parents is more likely to be rich than someone born in the slums of Bangladesh.

The reality of those born to privilege is vastly different. Not only do they have more resources, but they will be exposed to greater opportunities for success. They attend better schools where they network with those who offer advice, jobs or introductions. High achievement is modeled all around them.

And for those who aren’t smart or industrious but born into fortunate circumstances, it seems you can buy future success. Money once amassed is like a success insurance policy. One need only look at the recent college admission scandal that uncovered wealthy parents bribing university staff to insure their child’s admission into the ivy league.

“I really need to diversify my investment portfolio,” said no one ever in this picture. Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

While it is technically possible that there may be a future billionaire rocket scientist or captain of industry sitting on a garbage heap somewhere on the outskirts of Dhaka, it is ridiculous to promote the idea that those who find themselves there are struggling because they aren’t optimistic and employing a positive mindset.

Yet this is exactly what we do. We blame people for not succeeding even when the deck is clearly stacked against them.

Do you see it?

Even if we don’t recognize it, we can see this dynamic in our own lives. Getting your second thousand social media followers is much easier when you have your first thousand. Running that second mile is much easier when you are able to run the first. Landing an interview is much easier when you have a job.

This is explains why Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, a mediocre song about average guys dating supermodels, went on to top out on the charts at number three. Without his earlier successes and a Grammy under his belt, would that hit have seen the airplay and attention it received?

Photo by Seth Hays on Unsplash

Without fame, it is doubtful the guy who never finished high school would go on to marry Christie Brinkley or be given seven honorary doctorates.

What we don’t hear about in the glorious speeches to thunderous applause are the more talented musicians who never got that initial lucky break. No one talks about the average looking women who may have dated a not-famous Billy Joel, but never got the chance. We certainly don’t hear about people who could have received an honorary doctorate and have it propel them to success.

Yet every day, a celebrity announces their signature fragrance, new line of apparel or a ghost written book that will be a best seller which will earn them accolades and not the writer. They tour the talk shows where they attribute their success not to their fame and notoriety, not their money which buys expert help in all areas, certainly not luck or good fortune, but their hard work and merit.

Should we blame losers?

We don’t acknowledge how luck plays into achieving goals and dreams. We hear the hallow refrain to “follow your passion” and magically, success is supposed to be yours.

If it doesn’t happen, you’re doing something wrong. When positive outcomes fail to materialize, it must be due to a lack of effort, society says.

The response to bad luck is often to deny the reality of the situation. Support comes in the form of platitudes like, “Fake it until you make it" or, “If you expect life to suck, then it will.” Others will take the opportunity to talk about how they were once a loser, but adopted a sunnier outlook to overcome their own issues. After all, they say, it’s about your attitude.

Many times, the suggestion will be made that an individual is suffering from depression or some other mental disorder, and that is the reason for their failure.

It is never, ever suggested that success is impossible. No one recommends that accepting this reality may be more a prudent approach. There isn’t even the slightest nod toward the mathematical realities of win/lose scenarios. We don’t acknowledge that in any competition, winning is succeeding at someone else’s expense. Even situations that seem relatively benign such as getting a promotion means someone else didn’t.

What happens when someone loses out on a series of better jobs? Those who are experiencing a string of failures are usually labeled as “negative” for relating their negative experiences. The unlucky ones are shunned by the “winners” only after they offer their empty affirmations and personal recipe for success.

Then there are those who seek collaboration instead of competition, realizing the destructiveness of pitting themselves against another is unhealthy for everyone.

When adopting a positive outlook doesn’t work, sufferers have yet another failure on their hands. With the hostility to complainers and aggressive defense of optimism, most people experiencing a string of bad luck learn to keep quiet. No one acknowledges that more failures are to be expected and there is little in the way of concrete help.

Statistically, not everyone can win and many more must lose, but that isn’t acknowledged as reality. This is the flip side of “winners always win” but we don’t talk about bad luck or impossible odds. Instead we blame people for their circumstances which many times are beyond their control. After all, many people have seen those who are the best suited for a job passed over for a promotion. Or, we have seen those in competition who win because they are willing to cheat.

Society doesn’t tolerate losing, and few admit that it may be unavoidable in some circumstances. They are like the golfers who didn’t make the cut in Swedish research, largely ignored and used only as a comparison to the winners who receive the attention.

What Science Tells Us

You may not think any of this is too important. After all, you’re not obsessed with winning and you don’t feel like a loser.

Competition is built into modern society and there is no avoiding it. Any win/lose dynamic is psychologically destructive and ruins relationships, and creates power structures which are unhealthy.

The dynamic affects you, even if you are not overly competitive. This may explain why sociopaths excel in the corporate world, and why those above them often excuse their behavior. It may be driving the richest to continue to amass wealth to the point of greed. It also explains why successful people seem bent on a path that is foolish and self-destructive.

A Duke University School of Medicine study discovered there is a connection between specific genes and socioeconomic status. The researchers found that psychological factors link a person’s genetic profile and several important life outcomes. This plays out in professional achievements, financial goals, and upward social mobility.

In other words, some people are born to win.

Which means many other people were born without this gene. That, however, isn’t addressed in the research.

It is all part of the winner effect. When experiencing success, humans get a brain boost of testosterone and dopamine. Like the golfers, this leads to future success as a pattern of winning over time will change the structure of the brain. Winners become smarter and more confident. They are better able to negotiate bigger challenges in the future.

More troubling is the research that found while the winners get a boost, the losers experience a drop in testosterone. Over time, this translates into meekness and an aversion to risk taking. This is known as the “loser effect.”

Those with higher testosterone are less willing to cooperate with strangers. Our obsession with giving attention to winners means we are creating a society where we encourage competition, even cheating or exploitative behavior. In fact, the brain boost can make winners hostile towards those they perceive as outside of their group. In very high levels, they can become arrogant and act destructively.

This may explain why society refuses to acknowledge those who experience a run of bad luck. They may be subconsciously viewed as outsiders — not on “our team” — and unworthy of inclusion. We don’t know because the research isn’t there.

Losing is not always bad, as it can lead to greater empathy. According to Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University Massachusetts, depression can enhance the skills of a leaders during times of conflict or upheaval because they will be more self-critical or have a realistic view of the world around them. After all, losers aren’t going to be optimistic without reason.

The problem is that like society, scientists love winners. No one wants to research if there is an advantage to losing especially if they don’t acknowledge it is beyond some people’s control.

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