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The Abyss Between Success and Winning

goals success winning Mar 29, 2021


The Abyss Between Success and Winning

Fun fact:  if you look up the meaning of ‘winning’, you’ll find some variation of ‘success’; however, if you look up ‘success’, you will not find ‘winning’.  Rather, you see ideas about overcoming, achieving goals, and such.  

Winning: to be successful or victorious in (a contest or conflict).

Success: the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

I find this very interesting.  

Think about this idea for a moment: how many times have you equated your ‘success’ with winning’?  And by the same token, how many times have you ‘won’ and felt successful?  Now consider the times you’ve ‘won’, but you didn’t feel you’d ‘succeeded’?

Therein lies the rub.

Maybe you haven’t had personal experience with this: maybe you’ve just witnessed it in others’ lives.  Doesn’t matter: the point still stands.

The idea, at its heart, is simple.  Success is subjective: winning is objective.  

When you ‘win’, you’ve set up a competitive situation (or someone else has).  When you ‘win’, you’ve somehow trumped the competition - whether it’s speed, beauty, eloquence, marks, design, value, or anything else that humans ascribe worth to (including things like “Survivor” and “The Bachelor”).  


Many times the judging is, in and of itself, subjective, it’s true - however, the crux is that someone else decides.  

Success, on the other hand, is at its heart idiosyncratic.  When you get up on time?  Success.  When you get up at all?  Success.  Just depends on the person. 

Same goes for life in general: I know we have a current saying, “Winning at Life” (and I do love that one, btw), but I would argue what we really mean is “Succeeding at elements of life and lifestyle that we associate with advancing our ‘bottom line’ - whatever that may be”.  Now, this is arguably less catchy.  But it’s also more accurate.

Why am I thinking about this right now?  Couple of reasons.

First, thanks to our friend COVID-19, none of the usual festivals or exams happened with the youth that I coached in communication and presentation.  On one hand, I was bummed (I was - though I didn’t know it yet - in the final of 27 years of living through “the season”, and that had primed me for the cycle); on the other, I was deeply grateful - and this surprised me.  After all, wasn’t the opportunity to “win” (and therefore validate my and my students’ work) the pinnacle of our “success”?   I mean, I looked good - and they felt good - when that happened, right?


What I don’t think I fully realized, until quite recently, is how that external, ‘objective’ need for a ‘win’ was grinding me to dust.  Year after year, it wasn’t enough to see the enormous growth and development, the breakthroughs and epiphanies, of my coachees as “success”: without a “win” pinned to it, it wasn’t sufficient.

To quote my sons, this is - upon reflection - wack (yes, that’s spelled right).  With something as profoundly personal as communication and presentation, it’s nigh on impossible to please every adjudicator (judge) or examiner or audience member, in general.  In fact, every single person (bar the judge) can think, feel, believe, KNOW that one speaker is the most effective, most skilled, most memorable - and yet someone else ‘wins’.  While communication is meant for everyone, only one person holds the power to deem the moment “winning” or not.  And that’s nuts if you think about it.

Wack: something that just plain sucks, or isn’t cool at all.  Lame.

There are things that you would think - even assume - would be ‘gimme’s’: among them clarity, volume/projection, pronunciation, and eye contact.  

But again, nope.

Some will think hyper articulation is “best” - others are more inclined to a softer sound; some will have a hard time hearing or hear really well, and the venue can do weird things with voice; some will fight over the pronunciation of “often” or “livery” (look ‘em up); and some will WANT eye contact, and others will feel it impedes the audience’s ability to imagine.  Some spend so much time looking at their notes, as a judge, that they never even notice eye contact.

These - and many, many more - vagaries haunted my work.  

And the longer I chased others’ definitions of “success” (in the guise of “winning”), the more my nerves frayed.  Ironically, by the parameters of winning, I’ve been overwhelmingly “successful”: but every win led me further into an abyss.

Now that things have well and truly ended (a choice I made late this past summer), I am experiencing my work on entirely different terms.  I am suddenly starkly aware that I’ve been running on the Hamster Wheel of Winning for far too long.

I’ve stepped off.  Well, actually, the Wheel came to a sudden halt and flipped me into the atmosphere, but the result is the same: I am now looking at the Wheel as a bystander.

Able as I am now to look at the work I’ve done - and continue to do - with my coachees, I can see very clearly all the successes.  Every persons’ looks different, by the way.

For some, just standing up is a success.  For some, simply speaking up is a success.  For some, getting work done ahead of time is a success.  For some, knocking it out of the park consistently is a success.  And frankly, it’s not for me to determine.  I witness, I guide, I support - but I don’t define.

So here we stand, all of us, on one side of the abyss - the “success” side, where there is room for everyone to have their own patch of ground - looking over at the “winning” side, with it’s tiny little perch made for one.  

I think I’ll stay on my side of the abyss, thanks.

xo d

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