Saturday, July 30, 2011

Congratulations! You lose.

My youngest son Bobby took up fencing at age 14. I remember driving him to his first fencing class, taking lessons from an ex-Olympic coach. For the first hour, the class had nothing to do with fencing. It was all push-ups, sit-ups, and conditioning. At the breaks, I heard the first of many “Dad, I don’t like this, can we go home now please?" from my son. *I love my son to death (and I know that he will be reading this blog) but he was very lazy. Working hard for anything was not in Bobby’s view of the world. Each time I said no to his requests to quit and to go home - we will finish up the day.

And then, with 30 minutes left to go in his two hour long first fencing class – out came the weapons. With epee in hand, I saw my son transform right before my eyes into a motivated, energized and eager student. All of the huffing and puffing of the past hour was forgotten. You could see it in his stance; you could see it in his posture. It was like someone exchanged his old dead battery for a fresh brand new one. In the car on the way home, he called his mother: “This is so cool! I found my sport!”

Bobby was very good. In fact, he was a natural. Within the first few weeks of Saturday morning classes, he was beating other students that were taking fencing classes for years. In his second month of classes, he signed up for a big tournament in New York City. We expected him to get beat soundly early on, but it would be fun to see what a big-time nationally recognized tournament would be like, and it would be a cool day in the city with my son.

Bobby was tall for his age, and had great reach (long arms). Great for fencing. Shockingly, he won the first round at the NYC tournament. And then, he won the second round. And the third and the fourth and the fifth. With less than three months of total fencing experience, Bobby was in the finals of the 14 and under group, in a fencing tournament that pulled experienced students from all over. Bobby was beating fencing students who have been taking fencing lessons for more than half their lives.

I never prayed so hard in my life - for him to lose. Bobby was not supposed to win this tournament. He did not pay his dues. Bobby was very good; he was a natural. But I knew that if he won this tournament – if he won his first tournament of his fencing career (and we are not talking about some little tiny local event at the YMCA) he would be ruined. If he won this tournament, there would be no living with him. He did not invest enough time. And if he did win this tournament, he would think this was normal. He would think that with minimal effort and with minimal training, you are entitled to the grand prize. Ah, no.

You learn more from losing than from winning. You don’t know the value of money, until you lose money. You don’t know the value of good health, until you have your first serious “health scare”. You don’t realize how precious the basics of life are to all of us, until they become scarce; until you lose them. There are over a billion people in the world who do not have clean drinking water. You don’t know the value of clean drinking water unless you have none to drink.

Yesterday, we lost power at the office (for only two hours). I had to go to the local coffee shop with my laptop, to try to connect to the world. Oh, how we take things for granted, until we lose them. What if there was no coffee shop with Wi-Fi? What if the power was out for days? What if we had no power for weeks, due to a hurricane or other disaster?

Bobby lost that day in the final round, to a 14 year old kid that looked like a Ninja. This kid had more “patches” on his uniform (from previous tournaments) than an Eagle Scout. Bobby had no patches. And here is the kicker: the final match was close! He lost, but he almost won the whole damn thing! It would have ruined him. If Bobby would have won that tournament against kids who invested years in training and studying the sport, it just simply would have been wrong. This was over six years ago, but we all still talk about this today. When things come too easy, they are not appreciated.

The best lessons in life come from losing, not from winning. You will appreciate your customers more, when you lose a valued customer. You will love your pets more, when you lose a pet.

And when you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

Touché is the French word for "touched" and is used to acknowledge a hit, called out by the fencer who is hit. Conversely, if a fencer concedes a hit when no hit was actually made, the fencer's adversary would say, “pas de touché” (no touch) to indicate that the hit should not be counted.

Bobby lost the fencing tournament that day, coming in a remarkable second place. Had he come in first place that day, he would have lost the lesson. Had he won it all that day, in truth, that win would not have counted.

Touché Bobby, Touché.


  1. Really nice experience of how natural things happen. It's called talent, but i guess you all already know how most of talented people end their lifes?
    It seems that father is right, when there is a win without big efforts, there is no win at all, only insidious luck.

  2. How interesting to note these types of experiences stay with us for years. John Maxwell in his book Failing Forward discussed how failing or losing is necessary to achieve success. Apologies if this is a duplicate.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith
    author of Be the Red jacket