Today’s post on Seth Godin’s blog reminded me of the importance of learning how to lose. I became aware of this at my first job after graduate school. Soon after I started work I was asked to interview graduating engineers for a few job openings. I knew plenty of technical questions to ask, but I didn’t know how to interview for those “intangibles” that make a great employee. I decided to ask my mentor. He told me the question he asks during an interview is “Did you play sports growing up?”
In my mind I thought, “I guess we do have a pitiful softball team, but that is still a strange question to ask”. So, I asked him why he asks that particular question.
He proceeded to tell me that he wants to make sure he hires people that know how to lose. He said, “In the electronic hardware business, you will get defeated almost every day. Those amoral electrons don’t care about your feelings. If you don’t understand the design, or if you don’t have it laid out exactly right – It won’t work. I want to hire people that know how to lose – people can handle defeat and get back at it the next day. This industry is difficult, and I have seen many engineers crack. The one thing that I have found that is fairly common with the ones that stick with it is playing sports.” (I believe that other activities can also produce the same result of learning to lose – perfecting art, music, Mario cart – but playing a sport forces you to confront losing often and in public.
I think there is a lot too learning how to lose. Winning is easy. We can all high-five our team mates, laugh with each other in victory, and share in the camaraderie. Losing is where we actually learn something. Your weaknesses get exposed. It’s up to you to identify those weaknesses and address them to improve – otherwise you will continue to make the same mistakes, you will get frustrated, and you will quit. Better to learn how to lose early. The stakes get higher when you grow up.