Why We Tell Our Kids “It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game”
“العبرة في المشاركة” is what my father used to say every time the Tunisian national soccer team lost a game. I can still remember the second, the third, and the fourth time, but there’s no time like the first — 24th of March 2001: the day I thought my father was crazy.
My father and I were watching a soccer game where the Tunisian team was down by two goals. I remember him yelling in front of the TV one minute before the final whistle. If you’re not familiar with soccer, you ought to know that it’s impossible to score two goals within one minute. Yet, there he was, jumping, screaming, and applauding a final failed attempt to score.
The strangely excited man caught me gazing at him. On top of my confusion, I felt that, somehow, he knew what I was thinking: “this guy is delusional — why bother cheering for a lost game?”
My father remained silent for ten very long seconds, smiled briefly, then pierced my soul with a determined look, “العبرة في المشاركة” he said.
“What matters is to participate.”
It took me a long time to understand what my father’s proposition truly meant and even longer to be able to articulate the psychological meaning behind it. It wasn’t until I turned twenty-five that I found a reliable source that allowed me to explain my father’s message on top of preaching it — thank you, Dr. Jordan Peterson.
Across a series of lectures and interviews, author and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson explained that life isn’t a game — life is a set of games. Peterson’s proposition evokes two complementary concepts.
First, Peterson explained that playing a game and playing a sequence of games involve two different approaches. While winning a single match is a punctual event, winning a series evokes a long-lasting struggle for successful and consistent performance. Since life is a series of events and challenges, approaching it as a championship series is a more viable strategy.
Second, Peterson highlighted that life is a set of different championships — such as work, leisure, friends, and intimate relationships. Within each league, we get to play multiple games across time — like switching careers, exploring a passion, having plans with friends, and going through different stages of one or many intimate relationships.
As a result, we can picture leading a successful life as winning as many games as possible across a whole bunch of leagues. Hence, the best long-term winning strategy is to improve your performance consistently. In other words, show up, play, adjust, and learn to play better next time.
Now, to get to play, you need to invite or be invited to the games that you want to play. An invitation could be a business deal, event, trip, or date. We all prefer to play with people who’re fun to play with, people who give their best regardless of the outcome, people who participate.
To participate isn’t just to be part of the game; it’s about playing in a way that benefits your growth and that of your teammates in the long run. For instance, cheating can bring you a win but will cost you credibility — thus being invited to future games. No invitations, no games, no wins. In contrast, giving your best regardless of the outcomes will bring you opportunities.
The Tunisian soccer players that my father encouraged gave the best of themselves until the last few seconds. Even though the game was lost, many players got to display their skills to the whole world and earned themselves contracts in foreign superior soccer leagues. As a result, the same players improved during the following years lifting the entire team to a better overall level. Three years later, the upgraded Tunisian team won the Africa Cup of Nations.
The same pattern used by the Tunisian soccer players can be applied to our daily lives. When we show up and participate in our daily interactions, work tasks, and fun activities, we achieve a double-goal. Not only do we hone our skills related to what we’re doing, but we also attract more opportunities through getting invited to new games in one or several leagues.
“العبرة في المشاركة” — “what matters is to participate” means: if you do your best in a game, you provide yourself with future opportunities to improve and win more games regardless of the outcome of the current one. That’s why we tell our children that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.