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Winning feels really great, but there's a lesson in losing

Home Front: Not everybody wins every time; there's a lot to gain by learning to lose gracefully and try again.

Working toward a goal and achieving it is important. It feels great and teaches us a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

But what about losing?

It’s safe to say I’ve lost many, many times in life. I tend to be a competitive person but like to think that I am also compassionate to those who might place second, next or just behind. When a person works hard and receives the gold medal, first-place ribbon or gavel as president of an organization, it is amazing. But they are probably an even better person if they’ve lost these top spots a time or two before.

Winning is not something to take for granted. It’s not easy, and if someone makes it look that way, it’s because they’ve put in the time training, researching and working behind the scenes. As a kid, I was very fortunate to accumulate plenty of first-place, and even purple ribbons. I loved competing whether it was running track, sewing for the county fair, giving speeches, being in leadership roles or showing cattle. No doubt I had great parents and a solid knowledge base that gave me an edge.

There are a couple of titles I earned that still make me smile. In 1993 I won my first state FFA speech contest. I remember the moment, the announcement on stage and that exhilarating feeling in my chest when they called my name. I tear up thinking about how totally cool it was. And I was only an 8th-grader.

I set the bar high and the following year set out to earn a speech title again. I worked just as hard, studied each night, practiced in the mirror, gave my new speech in front of local experts and my FFA chapter. Still, when I entered the room at the state contest something didn’t feel right. I knew as I spoke that I wasn’t on target, that the judges seemed disinterested and my responses to questions were not perfect. I left the room thinking, “This did not go so well.”

I placed third in the state that year in the agricultural policy division. There are plenty of kids who would have enjoyed that spot, but I felt lost, like I’d failed myself. I couldn’t blame this third-place spot on anyone else but me. At the same time, I didn’t realize what I had truly gained — a sense of realism and appreciation for being golden sometimes but not all the time.

The next several years were great on the public speaking stage because I didn’t forget that feeling. Both winning and losing had set the tone for who I was going to be.

And it wasn’t just in the public speaking world. I worked diligently with my cows, hogs and piano lessons. Sometimes I won and sometimes I lost. And winning sometimes meant winning the class of Angus heifers but not being champion overall. Losing meant standing ninth in a class of nine hogs and trying to walk out of the ring with a smile on my face. It was how the real world worked, my family said to me, yet I still had a burning desire to win it all.

The desire to win is definitely genetic. My saintly, quiet, stealthy mother entered my sister and me in our first contest one summer at vacation Bible school when I was 7 years old. There was a turtle race complete with two divisions, one for speed and one for decoration. Mom went all out. We found two box turtles from the pond, brought them to the barn, cleaned them up and painted those things. We painted one completely white, then put a red heart on its back, painted its toenails and gave it red lipstick. Yes, this really happened. I can’t remember what the other turtle looked like, but we went to the turtle races on the last day of VBS fully prepared for victory.

The pastor put all of the turtles into an open-bottom box. On the count of three he lifted the box and the turtles all put their heads in their shells and stayed there. Not a single turtle moved. After 10 minutes, a boy finally won when his turtle moved a whopping 12 inches away from the others, who were still scared to death and had their heads tucked into their shells.

We won the decorating contest with our red-and-white Valentine-themed turtle but for mommy dear it wasn’t enough. The next summer of VBS offered another turtle race, so a year later we found a couple of box turtles and painted them. However, I remember the morning of VBS turtle race day Mom headed to the pond. She came back with a snapping turtle with a 7- or 8-inch diameter shell. I remember she put it in the box with the painted box turtles, both of which immediately put their heads in their shell. The snapper kept its head out and walked around the box like a prize fighter. I was a teensy bit worried at this point.

At the race, all of the kids put their turtles into the open-bottom box except for me. Mom carried our snapper over and placed him inside. She said he was special. The pastor lifted the box, and all of the kids began screaming, cheering for their sweet little box turtles. Their turtles immediately hid inside their shells, but not our snapper. As if on a mission, it walked, then literally raced across the finish line. I cheered, Mom cheered. Others stood back in bewilderment.

I ran up to the snapper and spread my left hand out to pick it up by its shell. I wanted everyone to know it was my turtle that won. That speed racer reached its turtle head around to the left and bit down on my pointer finger. I screamed. At this point the cheering and commotion on the church yard stopped. I stood, screaming and shaking my hand, to get that turtle off. I had read they would “never let go.” I was scared this was going to be a bloodbath. The turtle must not have latched on that well because after 10 shakes or so it let go and flew several feet away. The pastor and others rushed to me to treat the laceration on my finger. I suppose Mom picked up the turtle, and let’s just say the races ended pretty quickly.

I learned winning was great, a truly wonderful feeling, but it can also be defeating when it’s over the top. Being bit by a turtle felt like losing, not winning. And if you look at my left pointer finger today, you’ll still see the tiny half-moon scar in the perfect shape of a turtle’s mouth. I’ll show it to anyone who asks. It’s a constant reminder for me to win with grace and lose with style.

Losing a race or a cattle show are not the only forms of loss. There are certainly much, much bigger things to lose in life. I haven’t lost my parents yet, only grandparents, pets and livestock. I’ve lost a good neighbor, friends and jobs, and I’ve learned a great deal from each experience. Losing those things was certainly not fun but they were necessary to grow and change.

I think losing an election would be terribly tough. So public, so confrontational and all eyes are on your reaction. I hope for peace and life lessons from the outcome of political races, both national and local. Some of our community leaders take it so hard when they are not put on boards or the city council, but I hope they learn from it. Losing is absolutely part of life. It’s necessary, and it’s good for you.

Losing makes winning so much sweeter. Watching my kids succeed is a great feeling. They come home or off of the field with smiles on their faces and their chests puffed out. They’ve also been on teams that have lost consistently, and boy, have we learned from that.

Losing is not fun, and I don’t set out every day to do it, but it does happen. And I have to be glad that it does.

McCurry writes from Colwich.

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