Fighting Battle Against Winner-Take-All Philosophy

<i> Berkman lives in Santa Barbara</i>

A curious obsession with winning seems to be engulfing America. In an era when tennis champion John McEnroe collects more for an afternoon at Forest Hills than author John Cheever earned in half a century of writing, the yearning for king-of-the-hill status appears to be spreading.

In my home town of Santa Barbara, radio talk show therapists cluck sorrowfully at “losers in the game of life.” An adult education class features “25 Secrets of Winners.” And a local savings bank, heralding its “unbeatable” interest rates, quotes a celebrated dictum generally attributed to the late Vince Lombardi when he was coaching the pro football Green Bay Packers: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

I doubt that he ever said it. Nevertheless, what might be called Lombardi’s Law has, despite its semantic fuzziness, become firmly embedded in the American psyche.

All of which brings to mind, by contrast, a couple of lines scribbled in my notebook some years ago at a Manhattan seminar in anthropology:


You don’t have to win the Preakness To establish your uniqueness.

I was trying to capsulize in Western terms a major tenet of huna, the folk wisdom of ancient Polynesia. The early settlers of the South Pacific made it a point not to deify victory, on the premise that doing one’s best, living in harmony with nature and respecting the rights of others counted for more than gathering laurels in the quest for human happiness.

Stacked up against that value structure, Lombardi’s Law strikes me as a dubious credo. For one thing, a single-minded dedication to reaching the finish line first makes it difficult to savor the delights of the journey. A focus on the standings also tends to discourage risk-taking experimentation; those who hit upon a successful formula, whether for blueberry pie or best sellers, are strongly tempted to settle for the kind of cautious repetition deadly to the creative process.

And gung-ho devotees of winning have been known to downgrade principles and issues in favor of results--as did the British colonel I knew in Cairo during World War II who admired Hitler because of the initial successes of the blitzkrieg. Even at its most basic level of sports competition, a frantic concern for victory is a notorious prescription for poor performance. The anxious batter whose eye is on the fences can hardly expect to keep it simultaneously on the ball.


The inescapable fact is that every time somebody wins, somebody else loses. Do we really want to banish all the also-rans in disgrace, relegating a large part of humanity to the ashcan? When performance in some highly limited area becomes the touchstone of personal worth, we bypass 90% of individual character, thereby diminishing all of us.

And what of life’s lovable losers? Are we to say farewell to the old Brooklyn Dodgers? To Harold Stassen? To James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, Charles Schulz’s grievously inept Charlie Brown, and to that most magnificent of bumblers, Don Quixote de la Mancha?

Worst of all, there is the subtle cloud that the passion for winning casts over the pursuit of peace. It creates a climate in which every encounter, personal or political, is reduced to the level of a sporting event.

Albert Einstein, contemplating the fractured atom, warned that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” I don’t think “25 Secrets of Winners” is what he had in mind.