We are a competitive people. We like to win. The feeling of victory is unlike anything else we experience. It is a high, no mistake about it. And we like the feeling.
Humans chase after a win with almost obsessive, reckless abandon. We want that high. At times, our pursuit of it cheapens the result. We want to win, even if that means hurting others (which undermines our win). Even if we cheat. Even if we lie.
The win, it often seems, is worth the sacrifice of character.
But winning without the character piece is a dangerous affair. Getting rich through embezzlement. Having multiple affairs but having to lie to your spouse. Getting power but losing oneself in the process.
These are subtle poisons. It may not feel obvious, but they destroy and invalidate the win we are seeking
The Great Race
A few days ago, I (and a colleague) took on the task of organizing a giant scavenger hunt around NYC for our current students. It is an exhausting all-day affair, sending them to various locations with various tasks to perform.
They want to win so badly. They don’t like to lose. I watched the whole gambit of emotions as they struggled to get to the top of the heap.
One of the things that surprised me about overseeing The Great Race was how much they cheated (or tried to cheat). How easily they broke rules. How willing they were to sabotage other teams.
I think the justification would be something like, “it is part of the game”. I often get this from students. “You didn’t say we couldn’t rip away the sign (which all teams need to see) after we saw it!”
All’s fair in the pursuit of winning. Lie, cheat, steal. Bend the rules. Forget your mission and values. Forget who you are.
We are chasing that high. And in the chasing, we too often forget.
The Character Piece
Now, I know what you may be thinking. I know what a lot of our students think. This is “no big deal”. Just a little fun. Just competitive play. All rules are meant to be broken.
The worry for me is that these students will take this lazy perspective about character into their adult lives. You wouldn’t shrug off losing a thousand dollars. Why do we shrug off character so easily? The answer is simple: it doesn’t really matter to us. At least not as much as winning. The prizes matter. The feelings matter. The way people perceive us matters. But does the character piece really mean something to us?
If it doesn’t, we will cut corners in marriage, in work, and in life in general. We will find moments of superficial victory, but it will always be a little tainted. A little untrue. People will like us and applaud our accomplishments. But deep down, part of us will know. The thrill of victory will be contaminated by our fear of being found out. Our fear of exposure. That we didn’t win as much as cause others to lose, and that those are indeed two different things.
In truth, the character piece matters. I’ve won with a lack of character and lost because of my character. You can guess which I truly regret.
Because winning is more than the emotional high of superficial success. True winning is in alignment with truth. And the character piece is essential.