Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation #14 – “What’s the Impact of (Not) Getting My Way: What Will Be Won and Lost and by Whom?”

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

One of the “easiest” scenarios within which to explore these questions is in athletic competition. “Easiest” is in quotation marks because while participation in sport does not typically carry with it the life-and-death ramifications of illness, injury, violent crime and war, it is neither necessarily easy, nor without its larger ramifications.1 Simply put, when I win – when I get my way, my opponents lose, or at best, finish second. At their healthiest, competitors accept and expect this, and – especially for those who learn from their wins and losses, begin to develop those physical, emotional, mental and spiritual “muscles” that allow them to “win with class” and “lose with dignity”.

Whether we’re exploring a child’s earliest experiences with competition and final scores, or an elite athlete’s efforts to compete on a national or international stage, perspectives on winning and losing and the respective muscles these outcomes can build, play an important role in the development of balance, resilience, compassion and empathy.

Beyond athletics, these muscles will come in handy as we attempt to “win” and get our way at work, in intimate relationship, as parents, as children, in the classroom, in court, on the playground, in the legislature, in the operating room, with the therapist, in the voting booth, on the street, in combat, on our death bed, and anywhere else we believe something important is at stake.

Consider these selected historical wins and losses:

  • 1600 – Giordano Bruno is burned at the stake at the order of Pope Clement VIII for arguing that the universe is spatially infinite (asking if it’s bounded, what’s on the other side) and that God is both transcendent and immanent.
  • 1776 – British immigrants in North America declare their independence from British rule.
  • 1863 – the Emancipation Proclamation declares all slaves in the United States free.
  • 1865 – the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan is founded in Pulaski, Tennessee.
  • 1870 – the 15th Amendment removes race, color and previous-condition-of-servitude restrictions from the right to vote (for men).
  • 1920 – the 19th Amendment removes gender restrictions so women can vote.
  • 1924-1929 – Edwin Hubble, and later the telescope that bears his name, confirm Bruno’s first point (above).
  • 1945 – first atomic bomb detonated in New Mexico

For each of these (and for countless historical and current, public and personal events of your choosing) consider who won and who lost in the short term, who won and lost in the long term, and what the winners and losers actually won and lost in each case. Your worldview, which we explored in essays two and three, will influence how you respond to each of these – as my worldview influenced which examples to enlist (and the decision to write this series on conversation at all).

One of the most powerful change agents that produces winners and losers is technology – in the largest meaning of that word. Who were and are the winners and losers with the emergence of intentional fire, the wheel, the firearm, pharmaceuticals, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the printing press, the assembly line, human flight, the computer and robotics, among many others? Again, check in with the worldview behind your responses as you explore this question.

So now, “what do these selected explorations of history and technology have to do with who wins and loses when I get my way in conversation?” you might ask. Concretely and specifically, not very much; conceptually and generally, everything. In essay number eight, we explored our human tendency to ascribe meaning or make interpretations before we truly know what something means – what might be an accurate interpretation of an event. We spoke about getting comfortable with not knowing on the path of learning.

With every stance we take, every stand we make, every debate we engage – whether about which movie to watch, where to buy the groceries, going back to school, dealing with a bully, helping our kid navigate a first heartbreak, whom to support in the election, having the surgery, going to war, etc., etc., etc. – we are choosing to support a position that will lead to winners and losers, often in very minor and often in major ways. At our best it makes sense to know, or at least investigate, who these winners and losers may be and what and how much they stand to win and lose, so we have a sense of the not-so-obvious, prospective impact of what we argue for and against.


1For a more in-depth exploration of the ramifications of sport, see The Quality of Effort: Integrity in Sport and Life for Student-Athletes, Parents and Coaches. 2nd edition, 2013. The focus of this essay is on personal wins and losses and does not address those professional and intercollegiate competitions in which billions of media, advertising, sponsorship, corporate and organizational dollars are in play and at stake.

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