A couple of years ago, Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, published a study in which he had tracked a selection of so-called “cool kids” for a decade following middle school. By cool kids, Allen was talking about the ones who seemed to float above the fray, who other kids gravitated toward, and who had the earliest sexual escapades to detail to their friends. By the slightly warped standards of middle school, these were the kids who enjoyed the most “success.”
After ten years, though, Allen found that the same kids who were leading the pack as adolescents were struggling the most as adults. They were 45 percent more likely to struggle with substance abuse, and 22 percent more likely to engage in criminal activity.
The Allen study is an extreme example, but it speaks to the idea that success, in whatever context, can bring with it unexpected complications. Admittedly, I first approached this dynamic from the other side, by exploring the concept that losing or failure can often lead to episodes of real growth. It was this general premise that fueled the idea for my first book, Win At Losing, in which I profiled an eclectic group of people who endured profound setbacks and emerged stronger as a result. But over of the course of reporting my book, I began to contemplate the inverse as well. In other words, if losing is what helps propel us forward, couldn’t winning hold us back?
The answer is complicated, but like those middle schoolers who achieved an elevated status at a young age, I’ve learned there is a risk in setting a precedent that’s difficult to sustain, particularly when one wrongly attributes the root of their success. Think about a student who gets only A’s, or a tennis player who wins every match. Enviable as either of those situations might seem, they also create an environment where the individual is ill-equipped for any other outcome.
One of the best ways of explaining this dynamic comes from the sports psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader, who uses the metaphor of a man who drives to work the same way every day, then one day learns his usual route is blocked. In the absence of any previous resistance, he probably doesn’t know of another way to get to the office. But if he’s been forced to come up with a different route before, he’s able to adapt.
“Imagine a world where for every negative result, we sat in our car not moving,” Fader says.
Fader’s point is that success is only a bad thing when it hampers one’s ability to handle the alternative. But it underscores the ways winning can deceive us into a false sense of invincibility. As a hockey coach for my two sons, I always say our worst practices come on the heels of big wins, if only because the kids are suddenly convinced they’ve got it all figured out. By contrast, if we get blown out on Sunday afternoon, I usually have a good chance of holding their attention at practice on Monday.
Ultimately this is another way of underscoring the essential qualities of humility. Being humble has nothing to do with shying from success or being content with failure. But it is about understanding that success is often a function of effort, and that it can be fleeting.
Another important study involving kids came from the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, who administered a fairly easy test to a group of fifth graders. When the kids fared well in the test, half were praised for being smart, the other half were praised for working hard on their answers. In a subsequent, more difficult test, the “smart” kids grew frustrated that they weren’t having as easy a time, while the hardworking kids embraced the steeper challenge.
Dweck used the study to illustrate two different classifications of people — those with a “fixed mindset” who essentially see their abilities as predetermined, and those with a “growth mindset” who believe talent can be cultivated. Dweck’s theory is another way of explaining the different ways we look at achievement, and by extension, when it can be viewed healthily or not. To possess a growth mindset is to recognize success as something dictated, in part, by hard work. It means that even when you’ve fallen short, you possess the tools to improve the next time out.
When we discuss the implications of winning, the important part is to not distort the message. There’s no shame in celebrating success–as long as you don’t let it get to your head.
Sam Weinman is the digital editor of Golf Digest and author of Win At Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains, published by TarcherPerigee.