I’ve never done well with competition. As a child it gave me a deep sense of inferiority and inadequacy. As an adult it does the same. As I grow older I have begun to realize that many of my shortcomings and failures were simply the natural process of life, they were not reflections of my worth.
I enjoy the School of Life YouTube channel. They provide animated videos with new concepts and perspectives. One video of theirs is titled “Losers and Tragic Heroes”. It speaks of modern society and its obsession with the narrative of heroes and villains, winners and losers, poetic justice in all its glory. We hear all about the success stories, while the countless failures are pushed into the background.
The video has given me a new perspective on a deep-seated idea that I have accepted without ever challenging its validity. I have been taught that if someone does not succeed, then it is because they did something wrong. They did not work hard enough, did not prepare well enough, did not want it enough. If someone loses to someone else, it is because the loser was simply the less talented party and they were doomed from the start.
The criticism goes even further, attacking the failing individual on a personal level. Meritocracy holds people totally accountable for their own biographies and turns failure from a misfortune to an existential verdict on the state of one’s soul. In layman’s tongue, our current society tells us that we are 100% responsible for every failure in our lives and that those failures are representations of who we are as people. Not only is the loser inadequate in the competition, they are now slated as inadequate in life.
What a cruel, wildly generalized, biased, ignorant, foolish concept, I think to myself. If Justin Gatlin loses a 100-meter sprint to Usain Bolt, does that mean that Gatlin is a poor sprinter? No, it simply means that on the night, Bolt was the one who won the competition. Gatlin is still a world class sprinter, he is still quicker than most human beings who have ever lived, and nothing can ever take that away from him. As mentioned in the School of Life video, this kind of logic was more accepted in Ancient Greek society than ours. The Greeks would say “You can be good and yet fail”. This, to me, is a much more grounded mode of thinking. Failure does not mean that you are inadequate, it might simply be a mix of circumstances that may very well be entirely separate from your worth as a human being.
Our social media-driven society loves to attribute all of someone’s success to their merit, but the same principle attributes all of someone’s failure to their lack of merit. I believe this might be the core of all the low self esteem induced by social media, the idea that someone else’s life is better than yours simply because they are better than you. In reality, they might be hiding their shortcomings, have hidden advantages, or were simply fortunate enough to suffer less setbacks or hardships. We can begin to remind ourselves that our successes and failures are not who we are, our failures are not always entirely our fault, and we can be good yet fail.