My friend Robert Schuller once asked, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” That’s a great question, an inspiring question. When most people hear it, they start dreaming. They are motivated to reach for their goals and to risk more.

I have a question that I think is just as important: What do you learn when you fail?

While people are usually ready to talk about their dreams, they are less prepared to answer a question about their shortcomings. Most people don’t like to talk about their mistakes and failures. They don’t want to confront their losses. They are embarrassed by them. And when they do find themselves falling short, they may find themselves saying something trite, such as “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” The message is, “Hope to win, expect to lose, and live with the results either way.”

What’s wrong with that? It’s not how winners think!

Successful people know the way to turn a setback into a step forward. How? They don’t try to brush failure under the rug. They don’t run away from their losses. They learn from them. Every time. They understand that life’s greatest lessons are gained from our losses—if we approach them the right way. Mistakes are acceptable as long as the damage isn’t too great. Or as they say in Texas, “It doesn’t matter how much milk you spill as long as you don’t lose your cow!”

Why Losses Hurt So Much

In life, sometimes you do win. But other times you get knocked down. The key is to figure out why you got knocked down, learn from it, get back up, and move forward. That’s how successful people win.

Have you ever heard someone use the phrase “It’s only a game”? I bet if you have, it was from someone who was losing. Nobody likes to lose. Think of some of the losses in your life and how they made you feel. Not good. And it’s not just the pain of the moment that affects us. Our losses also cause us other difficulties. Here are a few:

1. Losses Cause Us to Be Emotionally Stuck

Author and speaker Les Brown says, “The good times we put in our pocket. The bad times we put in our heart.” I have found that to be true in my life. In my heart I still carry some of the bad times. I bet you do, too. The negative experiences affect us more deeply than positive ones, and if you’re like me, you may get emotionally stuck. Anxiety and fear are debilitating emotions for the human heart. So are losses. They can weaken, imprison, paralyze, dishearten, and sicken us. To be successful, we need to find ways to get unstuck emotionally.

2. Losses Cause Us to Be Mentally Defeated

It cannot be denied that our lives are filled with loss. Over the course of our adult lives, we lose jobs and positions. Our self-esteem may take a beating. We lose money. We miss opportunities. Friends and family die. And I don’t even want to talk about some of the physical losses we experience with advancing age! Some losses are large; some are small. And the losses we face affect our mental health. Some people handle it well, while others don’t.

The quality that distinguishes a successful person from an unsuccessful one who is otherwise like him is the capacity to manage disappointment and loss. Too often losing goes to our heads. It defeats us, and we have trouble coming up with solutions to our challenges. As the losses build up, they become more of a burden. We regret the losses of yesterday. We fear the losses of tomorrow. Regret saps our energy. We can’t build on regret. Fear for the future distracts us and fills us with apprehension.

We want success, but we should instead train for losses. We need to expect mistakes, failures, and losses in life, since each of us will face many of them. But we need to take them as they come, not allow them to build up.

3. Losses Create a Gap between I Should and I Did

Winning creates a positive cycle in our lives. When we win, we gain confidence. The more confidence we have, the more likely we are to take action when it’s needed. That inclination to move from knowing to acting often brings success.

However, losing can also create a cycle in our lives—a negative one. Losses, especially when they pile up, can lead to insecurity. When we are insecure, we doubt ourselves. It causes us to hesitate when making decisions. Even if we know what we should do, we are reluctant to do it. When such a gap is created and isn’t overcome, success becomes nearly impossible. If we want to be successful, we need to bridge that gap.

4. The First Loss Often Isn’t the Biggest Loss

When we experience a loss, we have a choice. If we immediately respond to it the right way, the loss becomes smaller to us. However, if we respond the wrong way, or if we fail to respond at all, that loss becomes greater. And it often leads to other losses. As the subsequent losses come at us, they seem to become bigger and bigger, crashing over us like waves in a violent storm. As the number of losses goes up, our self-confidence goes down.

We make matters worse when we compare ourselves to others, because we rarely do so on a level playing field. We either compare our best, including our good intentions, to someone else’s worst, or we compare our worst to someone else’s best. That can lead to a negative cycle of self-talk. And the more negative it becomes, the larger our losses appear to be to us. If our self-talk is angry, destructive, or guilt producing, we become even less capable of breaking free of the negative cycle.

If we can overcome an early loss and not let it become magnified, that can help us move forward. That’s not always easy to do, but even someone who has faced a very great loss can learn to do it.

5. Losses Never Leave Us the Same

The number or severity of your losses isn’t as important as how you experience those losses. Yes, all losses hurt. And they make an impact on us, an impact that is rarely positive. Losses change us. But we must not allow them to control us. We can’t let the fear of looking silly or incompetent paralyze us. We can’t let the fear of negative consequences keep us from taking risks. Allowing negative experiences of the past to warp your future is like living in a coffin. It puts a lid on you and can end your life.

How does one minimize the negative damage of debilitating losses? First, by letting them go emotionally. If we want to overcome adversity and keep from being defeated by our losses, we need to get past them. And then we need to learn from them!

Successful People Turn a Loss into a Gain

If you’re going to lose—and you are because everyone does—then why not turn it into a gain? How do you do that? By learning from it. A loss isn’t totally a loss if you learn something as a result of it. Your losses can come to define you if you let them. If you stay where a loss leaves you, then eventually you can get stuck there. But you can choose to change, grow, and learn from your losses.

That, of course, is not necessarily easy. A loss doesn’t turn into a lesson unless we work hard to make it so. Losing gives us an opportunity to learn, but many people do not seize it. And when they don’t, losing really hurts.

Learning is not easy during down times, because it requires us to do things that are not natural. It is hard to smile when we are not happy. It is difficult to respond positively when numb with defeat. It takes discipline to do the right thing when everything is going wrong. How can we be emotionally strong when we are emotionally exhausted? How will we face others when we are humiliated? How do we get back up when we are continually knocked down?

I wrote How Successful People Win to answer these and other questions about learning from losses, because I believe it can help you win. Most of us need someone to help us figure out how to do that. If that is your desire—to become a learner from losses—you need to change the way you look at losses, cultivate qualities that help you respond to them, and develop the ability to learn from them. I believe you can do that using this road map:

Cultivate Humility: The Spirit of Learning

Face Reality: The Foundation of Learning

Accept Responsibility: The First Step of Learning

Seek Improvement: The Focus of Learning

Nurture Hope: The Motivation of Learning

Develop Teachability: The Pathway of Learning

Overcome Adversity: The Catalyst for Learning

Expect Problems: Opportunities for Learning

Understand Bad Experiences: The Perspective for Learning

Embrace Change: The Price of Learning

Benefit from Maturity: The Value of Learning

My primary goal in life is adding value to people. I hope this book will add value to you, teaching you how to learn from your losses. That’s how successful people win!

Adapted from How Successful People Win (May 12, 2015)

1 Comment

  1. […] Successful People Know About Winning – John Maxwell ( – My friend Robert Schuller once asked, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you […]

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