Fixed Traits And Fate

One important lesson to be learned during childhood and early adolescence is that our traits are plastic, not fixed. I know these are unusual terms, but you’ll easily recognize what I mean by them with this example:

Several kids are playing a game, and there is some inter-personal tension involved. (Instead of just trying to win the game, one or more of them are trying to prove another inferior.) Then, once the game is won, the losing team, or a member thereof, is loudly branded “a loser.”

For now we’ll ignore some of the driving forces of this bad behavior. We’ll also bypass the fact that this is a very ‘boy’ example, and that girls can be equally bad in other ways. What I want to focus upon here is the trick of turning a verb into a category, which goes like this:

To lose is a verb, reflecting a specific set of events: events that might come out differently next time.

To be a loser is to be a thing, to be frozen within a category. This is not changeable.

As silly and as obvious as this trick is, it deeply affects people. Not only can it be seen in adults, but its affects can last through an entire life. If we – young, confused, dejected – start to wonder if it’s true, and if we encounter a wider world that goes along with the assumption it rests upon (some of us are winners and some of us are losers), this trick can cause immense damage.

And so we must take the fangs out of winning and losing.

Bear in mind that I’m not saying we should change all our games so that no one wins or loses: I’m saying that we need to create clear and rational concepts for winning and losing. Humans are very sensitive to dominance events like winning: it is an area of gaping vulnerability for us. We need to handle this properly, and we seldom have.

Winning Is A Fun Thing, But It Isn’t A Big Thing

Games, conducted well, help children develop complex skills and teach them to strive. In the best cases they teach them the price of excellence and leave them knowing that they are able to pay it.

I scratched down one of the great thoughts on this subject a long time ago, from someone named David Weinstein. To this day I don’t know anything more about David, but his thought was a gem:

The important thing about winning is knowing that you can.

Winning, in almost anything significant, is hard. Even as children, none of us have the time and energy to be great at a dozen different games at the same time. Even the greatest natural athlete will never be world-class in more than a few sports simultaneously.

And so, we’re not going to win in everything… no one can do that… any person or team worth competing against will be hard to beat.

What’s important about winning is not the winning itself, but knowing that we can learn how to excel. In other words, it’s excellence that matters, and excellence is merely measured in winning.

Children can, and probably should, learn to win. But they won’t and shouldn’t win all the time. That’s a damaging expectation, modern sports rhetoric be damned.

And so, here are a few phrases you may want to use:

    • Winning your game is fun, but it’s not very important.
    • If you didn’t do well this time, figure out how you can do better next time.
    • Winning might require a lot of hard work; do you want to do that for this game?
    • Games are supposed to be hard to win. If they’re easy to win, they’re not a good game.

And here are three underlying principles that I think should be instilled in children:

    • What we do changes our future.
    • Something can be done about almost anything.
    • Excellence comes at a cost, but we are able to pay that cost.

Applying those is an art, of course, but if you hold them in mind, you’ll do pretty well.

The Attraction of Fate

Before we leave this subject, I think we need to cover fate briefly. Being cast as a loser and having a fate are both fixed things, and they are things that can be attractive to people.

Sweating and striving and still losing can be a difficult emotional blow, specifically if your overall environment is cast in the dominance model. Rather than banging your head against a wall repeatedly, it’s easier to settle back into some form of fate. (Which we tend not to call “fate” these days.)

It’s all too easy and acceptable to say, “I’m just a _______,” and thereby excusing yourself from striving, and even from seeing. Lots of people do that and will comfort you for saying it.

But by doing this – by saying this – you train your subconscious (especially your expectations) to accept that your situation cannot be changed by you, and to avoid the effort and risk required to change it.

Bear in mind that this is understandable in some very oppressive conditions, and we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn people for choosing it. They may need it to hold their mental and emotional selves together.

Still, we truly are more than that: We are inherently creative and capable creatures, and it would be best if we all saw ourselves that way.

We should also be aware that in bad cases, the fate mentality can displace competing ways of thinking and living. After that, the holders of fate will see competing ways as overt threats… even as personal insults. And so, if a healthy person does somehow emerge in that situation, they create more contradiction than can be borne by the others, leading to some very ugly responses.

And So…

And so it’s crucial for us to teach children that winning is about excellence rather than dominance, and that losing is no more than a passing event. Because, if the contrary model roots too deeply, it will not only damage them, but it can bring down whole civilizations.


Paul Rosenberg