7 Lessons for Dealing with Defeat

Losing is terrible. If there's a silver lining, it is only in learning from it and avoiding the same mistakes again.

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By Steve Tobak


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Last week was a real bummer. I can't tell you what happened but let's just say I lost a long-term battle that meant a lot to me. It was a resounding defeat that felt very much like the universe was sending me a message. I've had big flops before but the thing is, I thought I had this one. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Now, the last thing I want to do is blow smoke up your you-know-what with some trite euphemisms and feel-good fluff. The only benefit of losing comes from facing what really happened and learning from it. That way you won't repeat the same mistakes. Besides, pivotal insights often come from defeat. Don't ask me why; they just do.

In fact, I took away a number of lessons that have been around forever in one form or another but were surprisingly relevant in the context of an emotional setback. We've heard them all before and maybe that's why we don't typically pay them much attention. Well, you should. They've made all the difference for me.

Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.

Since it was such an overwhelming defeat, I decided to take a step back to try to see the opposing side more clearly. Wouldn't you know it, that new perspective made me realize I'd been too close to the situation and was seeing everything through my own subjective filter. Suffice it to say, I see things much more clearly now and am the better for it.

Tomorrow's another day.

Time is the most persistent concept in the universe. It never stops marching forward and that's a double-edged sword. Good things never last but neither do bad things. In a sense, time allows for redemption – if you have the courage and humility to take advantage of it before the clock runs out on you.

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Every cloud has a silver lining.

I have no idea if that's true but the benefit is in the belief: If you believe it's true, then you'll search for that silver lining. I did and you know what? I found it. Losing forced me to let go and, once I did, I realized that what I was fighting for wasn't nearly as precious as I'd thought it was. It was actually a relief to let go of that enormous burden I'd been carrying around.

You can't win them all.

Life is both a brutal competition and a game of chance. Every transaction, every decision, every game, every pivotal event has both winners and losers. Overachievers may say they never like to lose, but since it is inevitable, it's a good idea to learn to take it in stride and get the most out of it. In other words, strive to win but don't get used to it.

Choose your battles wisely.

This is a big one and, in retrospect, it's the one that really came back to bite me. One of the best things you can do to increase your odds of having a successful and happy life is to be incredibly judicious about which battles you choose to fight. Make sure they're worth it. This one was not. And I suspect that's one of the reasons why I lost.

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What goes around, comes around.

Karma may relate to reincarnation, but I think it has a funny way of coming back to haunt us in this life too. Instead of looking for excuses or blaming others for what happened, I decided to a look at the possibility that I brought this defeat on myself. It turns out that I sort of did. Nobody likes to think he's the bad guy, but we all do make mistakes … and Karma is there to make sure we never forget that.

Hope for the best but plan for the worst.

One of the big problems with overly positive thinking is that it can be a slippery slope that leads to overconfidence. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove said, "Success contains the seeds of its own destruction." Had I taken that into account instead of assuming I would win – as usual – I would have done things differently and made smarter decisions in this case.

Here's the big takeaway from all of this. When it comes to human experience, there are few absolutes. We experience everything in terms of our own perception. Two people will see the same event differently, often drastically so. And when someone looks at you, she doesn't see what you see when you look in the mirror. It's important to remember that.

I'm not saying there is no right and wrong, but you're probably not on the right side of that equation as often as you might think.

Related: Don't Be a Solopreneur. Do This Instead.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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