Becoming a Leader or Becoming a Loser?

by Alli Polin on May 30, 2014

Don't put people in boxes of winners and losers. Instead, inspire them to become leaders.

My son sat down to do his homework last night and it was hard for him.  Being his Mom, I encouraged him, “You can do it, honey!”  The more I encouraged him, the angrier he became until he melted in sadness.  He cried and shouted, “You think I’m a winner.  You think I can do it.  Well I don’t want to be a winner.  I want to be a loser.”  My heart hurt as I watched my little boy struggle and clearly in pain.  It was time for me to stop talking and start really listening and understand why he was set on becoming a loser.

Why doesn’t he want to be a winner?

He can’t do his homework, he said, and pleaded with me to accept it as true.  Through his tears my son told me that the winners at school are mean and they brag.  They are not kind to other kids and only think of themselves.  They talk about how they’re the best and only make everyone around them feel bad that they’re not as good. Why would he want to be someone like that?

Why does he want to be a loser?

A loser can mess up, he cried.  A loser can try and nobody is going to be disappointed when they can’t do it.  A loser is going to make other kids feel good because they are friends and not better than them, just friends.

I told him he’s smart, kind and loving and I love him with all of my heart.  The world doesn’t need more people with labels like winner or loser, but the world needs more people who:

  • Try and fail and try again.
  • Try even when it’s not easy.
  • Do their best.
  • Celebrate others who do their best.
  • Are good friends.
  • Don’t constantly compare themselves with others to feel good.
  • Believe in themselves and in others too.
  • Dream crazy dreams and then work to make them come true even when everyone else says it’s impossible.
  • Go all out with everything they do.  Riding their bike, singing a song, homework, baseball… everywhere.

I could accept that my son could not do his homework if that turned out to be the case.  I would not accept that he was unwilling to try because it was hard.

My son thinks he’s becoming a loser because he’s coming up against his limitations while simultaneously feeling the pressure to reach for perfection.  In truth, like most people, he’s struggling with being a human being who hurts, cares, loves, tries, fails, and keeps on going.

Enough with becoming a loser, boxes never serve.  I think he’s working on becoming a leader who can accept people’s best will not always be perfect – the first person he needs to apply that lesson to is himself.  Our challenges are not equal and neither are our strengths which is why we are stronger together.  I’m really clear that his best should not be “as good as” his sister, his best friend or his cousin.  It’s what he can and will do that matters the most.

Once he dried his tears, we sat down together at the table.  We talked about his homework, created a framework, and it started to flow.  Did he finish it? No.  Did he learn that he could tackle it, but he had to look at it in a new way?  Sure did.

We are imperfect human beings and to pretend otherwise creates a world where children come up against a challenge and stop for fear of failure.  How can we let our future leaders, with so many gifts, think that they’re not enough to meet the expectations of the generations before them?  We are all enough, more than enough, we just need to find the courage to try.

What are your thoughts?  Do we need more losers and winners or leaders?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Hilsden May 30, 2014 at 7:11 am

I got very emotional reading this post. It reminds me of my life and how to be termed a looser by the man that I onced loved and was my hero and yet when I worked hard to create music and dreamt of turning into career he contributed majorly in destroying that dream.

Since then I have forgiven my dad but I cannot forget.

When I rang my parents to let them know that I had been selected for a major solo art exhibition my dad in contrast to my mother slagged me off and belittled me. At first it hurt and then turned to anger. Over the last year I’ve cut off all communication while creating. Many a day I’ve though of them but I cannot have that negative dehabilitating distraction.

In September I aim to invite them to the open evening hopefully it will show my father that success can come in many shapes and forms.

Mark

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Alli Polin May 30, 2014 at 7:22 am

Mark,

I’m so touched by your heartfelt comment.

A sincere congratulations to you on your upcoming art exhibition. I hope that your parents will be there to support you and love you for who you are – and not belittle you for who they want you to be.

I hope that my son one day learns what you’ve learned… success does come in many shapes and sizes indeed. The definition of success that counts the most is the one we write for ourselves, everyone else’s measuring stick ultimately matters far less.

With thanks,

Alli

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Chery Gegelman May 30, 2014 at 7:51 am

Alli – You are always such a beautiful writer. But this post tore at my heart. I wanted to hug your son and encourage him too!

I LOVE that you took the time to really listen. and agree with you, “I think he’s working on becoming a leader who can accept people’s best will not always be perfect.”

And I could not agree more with your list about what the world needs!

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Alli Polin May 30, 2014 at 8:29 am

Thank you, Chery! Your feedback means so much to me. He was so sad and learning to find the words to express his feelings instead of hang on to anger and frustration.

I’ve been watching what I say too. Like… when I suggested I quiz him on his spelling words he asked “Why? You already did.” In the past I may have said “So you can get them perfect on your test.” Instead I just went with “So you can do great and give it your best effort.” (he wasn’t buying and there were no last minute spelling drills)

Big thank you to you, Chery!

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Terri Klass May 30, 2014 at 8:47 am

Being able to convey to our children how important it is that they be who they need to be is oftentimes so difficult. I dislike labels and think they are destructive for everyone, especially children.

Your son will find his gifts and strengths with you beside him and reminding him of his unique contributions. He is so lucky to have you as his mom and advocate!

Your post is beautiful, Alli, as you are. :)

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Alli Polin May 30, 2014 at 9:19 am

“They be who they need to be” That’s it! Not who we need them to be as their parents or their teacher or friends on and on. All we can do is appreciate people, and our children, for who they are, unfailingly, and hope that in time they look in the mirror without focusing on what’s missing but celebrate all of who they have become.

Tough job that can only be done with great love.

I appreciate you, Terri!

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Joy Guthrie May 30, 2014 at 9:42 am

Brought tears to my eyes too Alli. Your son found a deep lesson there that you were able to help him understand even better. In the telling of it, you’ve reached many more. What a wonderful post. Thank you.

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Thanks, Joy! I think it’s a lesson that will have to be reinforced daily. Our best is all any of us can do and I know all too well how far from perfect that may land – and it’s OK.

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John Bennett May 30, 2014 at 11:53 am

Great post as always, Alli!!! Interesting and super suggestions – as we readers have come to expect. I’ve shared this with our daughter and her husband. We’ve recently spent a month with them and have heard the emerging message and tone of our grandson. In our “adult” discussions, we have literally used the phrase “wants to be a loser.” In long talks with my grandson, I believe this is rooted in his acceptance into a highly competitive HS starting in the fall. He’s apprehensive AND his friends (not going there) are putting pressure on him – triggering, we believe, his reaction.

He is so capable and so excited in general to be going – and will grow so much once he’s there. But the end of middle school with his friends is tough for him. Thanks again for a very topical post, one that will add significantly to our interactions with our grandson.

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:16 pm

John,

Thanks for sharing about your grandson. Interesting that the same language is coming up with my son and your grandson despite the distance and age difference. It’s really does hurt when we see so much potential but it’s stepping fully into that potential that can be the scariest.

Pressure from new schools, leaving friends, teachers, parents, themselves… there is so much to live up to no wonder kids sometimes just want to drop out and be losers.

Nobody says that they need to be winners… they just need to be and do the best they can.

Thanks, John!

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LaRae Quy May 30, 2014 at 12:36 pm

What a touching post, Alli!

Our society has become so focused on winning and success that we don’t even know how to have conversations about failure or losing.

At his tender age, he is learning to respect imperfections. He’s seeing them in himself, and as long as he respects himself in spite of those imperfections, he will always have a tender heart for the imperfections in others.

I know that from personal experience…I was a real loser throughout most of my young adult life – at least by society’s standards. I no longer feel sorry for myself because I was a loser…pulling myself out of it took mental toughness, a characteristic that has served me well in my adult years.

But now I have real empathy for those who have not or cannot find that sweet spot of competence, ability, and passion. For most of us, the “success” we wear is only a thin veneer…

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Learning to respect imperfections can be a tough lesson to learn but one that’s truly important. He also uses it as an excuse to do the minimum instead of putting in maximum effort. No way to go from good to great or awesome or amazing with a “gotta get through this” attitude. Unfortunately, I can’t own or change his attitude – that’s up to him.

Love that it’s possible to cultivate mental toughness to make the necessary shifts in our lives instead of staying deep in the mediocrity of being a self-proclaimed loser.

Appreciate your insights, LaRae!

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Tom Rhodes May 30, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Alli,

I look forward to your posts every Friday morning. Real, heart felt life expressed brilliantly. I have never understood the need to waste time and energy on the fantasy of perfection. That time and energy could be better used working at the being the best you that you can be. Which includes falling and getting back and trying again. Winners and losers are about sporting events not people. Your son is on the road to greatness. He has a wonderful role model.

Tom

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Perfection really is a fantasy, isn’t it?

Every morning I drop my children off at school on the ride over I ask them, “What’s your job today?” and like a chorus from the backseat I hear “Be your best and do your best.” They know the words, we’ve said them for years, they’re now figuring out what it means to own them.

Many thanks to you for your connection, support and feedback, Tom!

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Samantha Hall May 30, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Another brilliant post my friend.

What a timely and needed message for the world today.

Just the words ‘loser’ and ‘failure’ can trigger powerful feelings within people who may have been raised with performance = love as a means of survival.

I personally curse the word fail or failure. Or would love to.

Thanks for sharing on a such a vulnerable topic with a powerful message and life lesson through your son.

xo

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Failing does not make us failures. It’s a hard one to grasp, especially for children.

We are not parents who endlessly edit our kid’s homework so it looks perfect. We are not parents who do the science fair presentation and send our kids in with it as if they did it themselves. We are parents that want to know what our kids can do, celebrate where they are, and help them to continue to grow. Hard when most other kids have parent-polished work.

I felt like I had a lot of pressure to grow up and get “A’s” when I was growing up and in college, when I got a C it killed me. To this day I think I should have dropped the class like 80% of the other kids did. However, I don’t remember a thing about the content in that class but remember a lot about persistence, working through something that was incredibly hard and seeing something through.

Kids have it tough and sometimes parents make it even tougher. I know I can put on the pressure. If I had know being a parent was so tough, maybe I would have gone easier on mine growing up. ;)

Thanks, Samantha!

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Jon Mertz May 30, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Alli,

What a heartfelt post and thoughtfully stated, too. We cannot be good at everything yet, at younger ages, we are expected to be “good” at everything. We get placed in these struggles. And, as usual, we gain lessons from the struggling times. It doesn’t make it easier for your son or for us, but we learn something about ourselves. We grow. We find what excites us and where we want to focus our strengths.

An experience for all ages… thanks for sharing.

Jon

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Jon,

Your comment really resonates with me. Kids feel the pressure for perfect grades and to be great writers, readers, mathematicians, historians and scientists. Luckily, there comes a time when we can focus on our strengths and passion. Like you wrote, we cannot be good at everything.

Hopefully, the lessons from the struggle will stick with him long after he’s forgotten the homework assignment and this particular evening.

Many thanks for adding your insight to the conversation, Jon!

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Cynthia Bazin May 31, 2014 at 7:57 am

Total tears brought to my eyes Alli. What a wonderful post. How true it is that there is so much pressure out there for kids and adults a like to be perfect. This post will surely open the minds of many….. Thank you my friend. Perfectly written.

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Thanks for your feedback, Cindy! So often we’re running after perfection but it’s a race we can never win and if we do, the costs are oftentimes incredibly high.

Appreciate you!

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Karin Hurt June 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Alli, This is beautiful. I’m thinking this belongs in our soon to be released ebook on How Parents Can Inspire Leadership in Young Children?

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Alli Polin June 2, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Great idea to put it in the ebook! Helping our children become confident, competent and creative future leaders is definitely a shared passion.

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Ryan Biddulph June 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

Hi Alli ;) I think we need folks who love doing what they do, and are more concerned with living from a place of honoring their passions above all else. Then we’ll not only have more leaders, we’ll have fewer folks who feel like losers, even though, losers don’t *really* exist ;)….thanks!

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Alli Polin June 5, 2014 at 12:02 am

I agree, Ryan… I’m a firm believer that we can work forever to close our gaps or focus on making our strengths even stronger. Teams can bring forward the best in each other (and families too!)

The fewer the number of people that feel like losers the better!

Many thanks for your comment, Ryan!

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