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On Winning (But Not By Winning)


Given the unsettled state of many economies right now (Greece, Italy, most of Europe), the recent upsurge in popular protests (the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement), and in general humanity’s need to squabble amongst itself for gain, I think it’s a good time to remember what all of this arguing and fighting actually accomplishes.

Very, very little.

For every success like some of the Arab Spring revolutions (debatable), you have a mess like Syria, where no one is helping and nothing is changing. What is it exactly that the Occupy protestors have done so far? In general, clog up public spaces and irritate those people who aren’t rabid for their cause. Nothing economically has changed because of that.

One of the reasons this strikes me is because my profession has a great deal of this in its history. Especially in North America, there’s this great popular sentiment and wishful thinking that attempts to denigrate the current state of education, regardless of past or present progress. It’s never good enough – if the teachers aren’t being too greedy about their wages, they’re whining about class sizes, say people; if the system isn’t wasting money on frivolous technology projects, it’s mired in bureaucratic inefficiency and hoop-jumping. Even in individual schools and classrooms this can be a problem, particularly with challenging classes and students.

For example, it is a regular course of a teacher’s job to have meetings of some sort with parents/guardians of students who are in one way or another not learning or showing their learning in a way that is identifiable. This may be because they have an undiagnosed special need, because their in-class behaviour is overly disruptive, or that they have some sort of inner emotional turmoil that is interfering with life. Regardless, these meetings happen, and the temptation is to look at it, from both sides, as a ‘winning’ situation. As in “If we can just get Student X to listen better, we can win the battle to help her learn”. Or “If Student Y and Z can both agree to just ignore one another, we as teachers can win this war of behaviour that we are having with them”. Go even further up in the chain of command. “If we win this negotiation, the government will give us the funding we need to make this system better.”

I’m just starting to realize that this is not the way to be thinking about it, and I think that many people still think of situations like this, and similar situations in their own or others’ lives, as a winning game. If you’re at all versed in game theory, a zero-sum game. Zero-sum means that nothing you achieve is done without a cost to something else. Every time you get a point, someone else loses one.

This sort of game also helps people categorize others as opponents. This subset of people is on my side, those ones over there we don’t want to bother to listen to. Opponents can be denigrated, cast out, and ignored. You shouldn’t concede to an opponent, and you certainly shouldn’t make peace with one.

We see this sort of thinking in labour negotiations with unions all the time. The evil management wants to keep our benefits and wages down so that their can sip Dom Perignon and smoke big Cuban cigars; the greedy, bloodsucking workers want so many benefits and wages that they’ll bankrupt the company.

I don’t think it has to be that way. Whenever I get asked the incredulous question of ‘Why on earth would you want to be a teacher?’, I believe people are still thinking of the world as a zero-sum game. Some people just can’t believe that there are places and times in the world where no one outright wins or loses in any outcome. The hours of time and sometimes thankless treatment in difficult classes seems like it’s too big a point loss to be recoverable.

Many people who believe that the right to free speech is paramount over all others think this, I feel. “If our right to free speech is infringed upon even for a moment, everyone loses!” they cry.

And here I stop and find myself trying to write this post in a way that doesn’t make it out in the end to be an attack, an offensive, a way to win in the end.

What I really wanted to say is this: there’s not always a way to ‘win’. You can’t save every student if you’re a teacher, and you can’t always ensure that everyone’s rights are 100% respected. If you look at the world through the lens of ‘winning’, you will never be happy, because this world, and the people in it, are not perfect. Instead of looking for a way to win every situation, try to simply not lose. I think that’s a very different thing. Stand your ground so that you don’t lose everything important, but don’t be so blinded by a mythical victory that you fail to do the most good possible.



  1. I read a book ( Metaphor, culture, and worldview:the case of American English and the Chinese language) by Linguist, Dilin Liu, that talked about Metaphors in the US and China and argues that sports and business constitute the dominant metaphors in American English while family and eating form the prevailing metaphors in Chinese. Many examples of his illustrate how even relationships are shaped by our usage of metaphor and that the incessant sports metaphors in American culture reinforce a competitive/adversarial role.

    Psychologist, Richard Nisbett has been doing cross-cultural reserach, much of which compares Americans and Chinese and I find it remarkable that so much of what he’s tested seems to make Dilin Liu’s book seem like just a particular case study on general cultural behaviors. His book, “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why,” outlines his research over the past couple of decades. Interestingly, so much of what he’s found fits in so nicely with the research done by Behavioral Economists and Political Psychologists that I would think by now that someone surely should have merged the fields (or at least bridged them).

    Humans just aren’t very rational animals, though we can have some moments of very rational thoughts and behaviors. In general though, we’re just tribal apes trying to make our way in a modern world none of us fully understand.

    • Jazzman says:

      I think I’ve actually heard of that book. I’ve certainly heard the research about metaphor between the different cultures. The stark contrast between the mindset of various cultures is boggling in some instances, and non-existant in others.

      I remember seeing a documentary about the brain and emotional reactions to music. These researchers took a set of recordings into the African jungle, and played music of the Western European art music style for a recently discovered tribe of indigenous people who had until then had absolutely no contact with anyone connected to the modern world. They had no knowledge of the music, technology, social conventions, or global events that we take for granted. Anyhow, these people were asked to listen to recordings and select the picture of a facial expression which matched most closely to the mood of the music. And in nearly all cases, even when listening to music that was 100% foreign to them, they matched up with the typical results of your average European or North American test subject. I’d like to think that this means that there’s at least some natural mutual understanding between people that gives us hope for continuing to work together and not against one another.

  2. […] Well, parent-teacher interviews are over and done with for this term, and I survived just fine. In all seriousness, it was really nice for me to go out there and not worry about ‘fighting’ or ‘winning’ when it came to challenging conversations with parents (which of course were by far the minority of interviews I had). See my previous post on the subject of ‘not winning’. […]

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