Chatter of the Squirrel – The Right Way to Lose

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Wednesday, April 9th – Most of us absolutely tend to overlook our mistakes, misattribute many of our losses to luck, and fail to implement changes even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s important when you lose to mentally recap what just happened and investigate whether or not you should have done something different.

A gallery of snapshots, a whirlwind of seconds. These last five or so days have whipped by like single frames of film, forgotten and insignificant individually but together an end of an epoch. For the last four years of my life I have spent at least ten or fifteen hours a week honing my skills at College Mock Trial, have sunk countless weekends into suit-clad sojourns to courthouses across the nation. A hundred trials as of Saturday. Three hours a trial. That’s almost two entire weeks of my life just in competition, doing something so absurd as, yes, pretend-lawyering. During that time I’ve toppled giants like Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, been recognized personally for outstanding achievement on nine separate occasions, and have ran my ever-yammering mouth for over 1525 minutes of self-indulgent chatter-spewing.

Last weekend, Mock Trial Nationals was held in Minneapolis. This one tournament would represent the culmination of years worth of labor, my final chance to leave a permanent mark on something that’s held almost as much of a sway on my life as Magic. On top of things, my beloved Tigers were competing in the Final Four, and I’d get a chance to take an intellectual pot-shot at UCLA before the Holy Trinity of Dorsey, Douglas-Roberts, and Rose taught them who the big boys really were. Needless to say, I was a little psyched.

We went 3-5.

To say such a result was a bit of a disappointment would be like saying that Adrian Sullivan has been known to party upon occasion, or that Richard Feldman has devoted one or two afternoons to Guitar Hero, or that Michael Jordan looks somewhat impressive when you hand him a basketball. I was floored. Devastated. I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that’s read me for awhile when I say that I have very high expectations of myself, particularly when I’ve been devoting time to something. Furthermore, psychologically it’s difficult for anyone to give something their all only to experience zero payoff in the end.

Yet this type of thing happens in Magic all the time, and it’s what I want to cover in today’s article. Yes, I want to talk about losing. Because we all do it. We all do it a lot, in fact, despite our best efforts to the contrary. It’s become a well-cited fact that Jon Finkel has only won sixty-something percent of his sanctioned matches. If that’s the best we can hope for, then we had better at least be prepared for the worst.

First, though, to be clear: this isn’t an article about how to best approach your losses from a win/loss perspective, how to incorporate lessons from the matches you lose and employ them to generate wins in the future. I’ve written about that extensively. Most of us absolutely tend to overlook our mistakes, misattribute many of our losses to luck, and fail to implement changes even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s important when you lose to mentally recap what just happened and investigate whether or not you should have done something different. I’ve said that a million times, though, so there’s no need for me to go over it again. In the spirit of talking not only about how to win games of Magic but how to make the most out of them, this article is going to deal with what the proper attitude towards losses should be.

Why we fail: part 1, translated
Because we tricked ourselves into thinking that other people have anything at all to do with whether or not we succeed.

Tom LaPille

I agree (mostly) with this statement. However, it’s very easy to mis-apply, and its misapplication oftentimes leads directly to the dangerous sort of coping mechanism that I’m trying to combat with this article. The thing is, in order to succeed, you have to progress such that you believe you can succeed and take the steps necessary to ensure that happens. That’s obvious. But the mentality that Tom’s getting at – the same mentality that Rich Hagon has been elaborating upon in his recent series – is a long-term philosophy. Just as sloppy play doesn’t necessarily ensure that we’re going to lose a given game – “sweet, ripped my Profane Command” – perfect play doesn’t ensure that we’ll win it, either. The trick is to avoid using “I got manascrewed” (or whatever) as an excuse, but rather simply as a statement of fact when it really is the case.

There’s an excellent litmus test for that, actually. If you’re complaining about manascrew angrily, I’d be willing to bet that you’re using it as an excuse. Think about it: if you’re 100% positive that the lost you just received is completely and entirely beyond your control, what would be the need to continue talking about it? Your friends don’t think you’re awful for losing a given match in a tournament, so why are you talking about it with them? You’ve thought through the process in your head enough to arrive at a conclusion, so why are you mulling and mulling and stewing and stewing over it to the point where you can’t think of anything else?

The reason I’m “calling out” Tom’s ideology, in a sense, is that I’ve seen it misapplied. I’ve seen people made into disciples, adhering to the theory like a religion handed down from a Primordial god, only to fail at the most difficult and trying of times.

When does this happen?

It happens right after you’ve embraced the perspective of empowerment. You realize that you’re the guarantor of your own success. And so you playtest. And playtest. You read every piece of theory, chat with every network that you have, and play pick-up games just to ensure your mind’s in the right place. You get a good night’s sleep, eat however much breakfast you need, and even make sure you shuffle your sleeves right before the tournament starts so there’s no pattern of unintentional markings that could get you a game loss. You smile as you sit down across from your first-round opponent, confident that the tournament is yours.

Then, for whatever reason, you go 0-2.

At this point, people who don’t understand how to manipulate their own destiny go ballistic. They scream about how it doesn’t work. That all their effort was for nothing. That this one tournament stands as living proof that the positive-thinkers are wrong, that there really isn’t a Bruce, that fate and fate alone is the ultimate arbiter of victory. In short, they give up too soon.

See what happened there? Even after embracing the idea, even after getting it, people still crave the confirmation of their lingering doubts.

The truth is, once you accept your role as the agent of your success, that success will come – provided you have the ability, of course – but it will come in the long term. Sometimes, sure, you’ll Remi or Jan-Moritz your way into a PT victory right at the start. That doesn’t always happen, though. When it doesn’t, you’ll realize that your journey is just beginning.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this particular issue because the more invested you become in an outcome, the more crushing it is when you’re unable to succeed despite your best efforts. We’re conditioned from such an early age that effort and success are directly correlated, but at the same time we know that the world isn’t fair. The problem is that, while it’s easy to intellectually acknowledge that the world isn’t fair, it’s much more tangible, much more resonant once it starts applying to us. Humans create causalities, whether or not they are artificial. One such causality is the ability to affect our own destiny. The American Dream is predicated on it, and the illusion of merit inherent in every application process from jobs to grants to scholarships depends on the essential notion that once you put X amount of time and labor into something, you deserve to succeed at it. That idea is important, but as human beings we must realize that such an attitude is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

I have always been a fan of Noah Weil columns, and the article detailing his departure from Wizards resonated strongly with me. Yet it also illuminated a very revealing fact – a fact that I think many of us harbor, consciously or unconsciously, in our own lives. A loss at Magic, or at any competitive venture, hurts so much because we’re all afraid that all the effort in the world doesn’t mean anything.

Think about that concept for a minute. It’s scary. Part of the reason I believe there are so many Ayn Rand-types in the world is that it’s much more comfortable to posit a direct relationship between merit and reward. The notion of a fundamental injustice inherent in the universe scares many of us so much that we rarely think about it, and many of us cope with it in different ways. My father, for example, is a phenomenal artist, but he hasn’t so much as sketched anything for thirty years because to do so would open him up to failure, open him up to the discomforting notion that our expectations are disconnected with our abilities, that we’re not really all we’re cracked up to be inside our own heads. A loss, even at something as comparatively minor as a Magic game, frequently calls into question the dissonance between who we are and who we think we are. Acknowledging that dissonance is uncomfortable – but it’s necessary.

So I’ve spent all this time talking, but have I concluded anything? I have, but I bet you’re going to be underwhelmed by the conclusion. At the same time, it might be among the most profound things you’ll ever read, and it may not even seem as such until you’ve done a phenomenal amount of losing in a very short span of time.

And what is it?

A loss at a game of cards is nothing but a lost game of cards. Ditto a lost Mock Trial round, a punted basketball game to Kansas in the finals, a failed job interview – or a successful business venture, a Pro Tour victory, a masterfully-crafted film.

Magic, like many things, can be looked at from the perspective of artwork. As someone that keeps the company of many an artist, many a musician, many a creative writer, it is all too easy to conflate our art with our selves. Anyone who has ever entered into a roundtable workshop knows this to be true, but it applies in situations ranging from the elementary-school classroom to the Executive suite. Kids are afraid of raising their hands to answer questions in class because of the notion that people will draw value judgments on them if they’re wrong. As a freshman in a writing seminar, every time a teacher slew a superfluous adjective I felt a pang of anger, a lingering trace of guilt, an ephemeral hint that somehow a part of me was being criticized. Each and every one of us does this at some level. Every aspect of our Work, with a capital W, contains (we imagine) some element of Us inside of it, and it can be so difficult to divorce one from the other.

Magic is no different. When we lose, many of us think, consciously or not, that we’re somehow worse people for it. We have to justify the great expenditure of time we’ve poured into this game we love, and the easiest measure of that is success. See, we say, it’s worth it. But the game doesn’t always work like that, and when it doesn’t it’s easy to become furious at some undefined and indefinable thing that bars us from the jaws of victory like a granite wall.

Doing this will make us miserable.

I’ve concentrated these last few weeks, like I always have, on ways of becoming better at the game. The difference is that I realized you can’t always measure “better” in terms of skill, of wins and losses, of your position at the cutting edge of tournament Magic. If you’re the greatest player on earth but you’re not having fun, you’re just a maestro at tactics. We play Magic for the same reason that we (ostensibly) do everything else: because it makes our lives better than they would be without it. If that’s not where you’re at right now – if the crippling sting that comes with every loss is all that you can think about – no masterfully-timed combat trick, no lucky string of topdecks, no perfectly-engineered technological Weapon X of a decklist will help you truly and genuinely “win.”

You are not your DCI rating.