A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who had built a successful business and managed to retire quite early in life. We were talking about the terrible feeling associated with losing money from your business and thinking that you’ve made bad decisions that have put you and your loved ones in a difficult financial situation.
Then she said something that really shocked me. “I was never worried about losing money in my business. I lost ridiculous amounts of money and I didn’t care. I’ve always thought that inside, you need to want to lose because otherwise you will never win. If you’re worried about keeping what you have, you’ll never grow. Growing is losing. You need to like it.”
Well, I thought, that’s an extreme statement! I’ve heard that you need to accept losing and get used to it, but wanting to lose?
And then I thought about Kahneman’s study of loss aversion, and how the pain of losing doubles the pleasure of gaining. This theory was formulated in the late ’70s and has been subject to different revisions, among others by Richard Thaler, the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, who said “To be sure it is true that big financial losses can be more impactful than big financial gains, but this is not a cognitive bias that requires a loss aversion explanation, but perfectly rational behavior. If losing $10,000 means giving up the roof over your head whereas gaining $10,000 means going on an extra vacation, it is perfectly rational to be more concerned with the loss than the gain.”
Coming back to my friend, who has a comfortable life with no financial problems, her statement might come from the knowledge that no matter how much she loses she will always have shelter and food on the table for herself and her family. Losing is not as painful for her as it is for many other people.
But still there is some sort of truth about people who have achieved something remarkable in life, financially, spiritually, politically or emotionally: they were ready to lose, to let it go, to go into the unknown, to be uncomfortable, to take a risk.
In a way they wanted to lose something because they knew they could only achieve what they wanted in life if they gave up something else.
In many spiritual traditions acceptance is the ultimate way of achieving knowledge and enlightenment. In Aikido, when somebody attacks you, you don’t fight or resist but instead blend with their energy and redirect it towards them.
Milton Erickson, a psychiatrist who specialised in medical hypnosis, used a similar acceptance approach with his patients. Once he told the story of how he suggested to a patient who claimed to be Jesus Christ that he might work as a carpenter, for as Jesus Christ he would surely be good at it. The patient accepted the suggestion, and to the surprise of many of his colleagues he started doing manual work.
The most successful leaders and business people that I know cultivate radical acceptance as the art of dealing with everything that life throws at you without making it personal. And this comes with a big lesson: the secret of growing is embracing everything. If you want to win, you might also want to lose.