It's hard to win, but for most people, it's harder to lose. I realized this truth applied to me as I settled into my seat flying from New York to Detroit. I had just lost out on an upgrade to first class and despite the fact that it was a short flight, I was still feeling sorry for myself — a typical reaction when we lose, be it in work, love, sports, or our cellphone.
As I made peace with my uncomfortable seat, I noted that the young guy next to me was wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt, so naturally our inevitable conversation turned to football — and losing.
I'll call my seat companion Dwayne, and describe him as friendly, a bit anxious about his future. He was a senior, and had been in New York to visit some law schools — "I'm not close to Ivy League, but I should get in somewhere," he told me. As I got to know him, I thought he was realistic in his self-appraisal.
Since it was a Friday, our conversation turned to the upcoming college football games to be played the next day. "So, how is Michigan doing these days?"
He reported: "Well, most Michigan fans are very frustrated, some are angry, others disappointed."
I inquired: "Why is that?"
Dwayne became emphatic: "I won't say we stink, but for the last few years, we haven't been very good. Our defense is terrible, our quarterback can't really pass. We're just an average team and to top it off, we play in a conference that is terrible compared to others." I immediately became impressed with his critical thinking skills and felt confident that he could get through law school.
He continued: "Most of my friends are really upset, but I'm not." He didn't wait for me to ask him why.
"I've changed my expectations and made them more realistic. Even if we were great, it's unrealistic to think we would never lose — everybody loses. For now, I just accept the fact that we are not going to be a great football team. I know Michigan will never be a football power like Alabama, LSU, Florida, USC or even ASU. Knowing this allows me to enjoy the game, just have fun. "
He continued: "Also, many of my friends make the game the center of their life. They magnify the significance of it, so naturally, when we lose, they become disappointed. Richie, my younger brother actually cries when Michigan loses."
Dwayne kept talking: "To me, Michigan football is something to do on a Saturday afternoon, nothing more. When I think about it, if I had spent those Saturday afternoons in the library instead of the big house, I'd probably be going to a better law school." Maybe, I said.
"You know what else?" He paused to listen to the pilot's announcement that we'd be landing soon.
"There's always another game. I learned this is true for everything. When I did poorly on a test, instead of feeling sorry for myself or getting anxious about my grades, I just told myself I'd get another chance. I'd feel better right away." I told him he would probably get a lot of opportunities to use that thinking.
Right before I put my seat in its upright position, the young Wolverine capped off his lecture on the art of losing. "I remember when the Fab Five blew the NCAA Championship on a mental error. I was so angry that we lost. I remember yelling at the team, 'Idiots, how can you be so stupid to call a time out when we had none left.' That loss really hurt. I thought we had a sure thing, and we lost. I didn't want to talk to anybody."
I wanted to move him along; "And the point is?"
"The point is that I felt bad and couldn't talk myself out of it. So I just acknowledged the pain, disappointment, hurt that comes with losing. I learned to accept the feelings of loss and sooner than I thought possible, I was looking forward to our next season."
"Well put, Wolverine boy," I said — this knowing he was no Hugh Jackman.
As we touched down, I quickly reflected on the losses in my life and thought for sure that I would benefit from heeding this lawyer-to-be's advice. Yet, experience also told me that it's realistic to know that there are some losses that linger on for a lifetime.
As we walked off the plane, I wished Dwayne well. It was a short encounter but when he walked away, I felt a loss.