Denver Bar Association
September 2000
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The Art of Losing

A good and gracious loser is actually a winner.
By Bill Mateja      

Reprinted from the Texas Bar Journal

Losing Is a Fact of Life

My wife complains she's losing her figure (not that I concur, of course.) Ecclesiastes speaks of "a time to get, and a time to lose." Our state Bar prez is losing his hair (sorry, Frank). My wife tells me I've lost my mind. Business is gauged by profit and loss. My dad constantly loses his keys. Losing isn't just a fact of life--it's an every minute, of every day, fact of life.

Kidding aside, we attorneys deal with losses and defeats more than most because of the adversarial nature of our profession. Lawyers are pitted against one another in trial, during deals, in hearings, during discovery disputes, in administrative proceedings, during divorce proceedings, etc. Ours is a profession marked by daily wins, and daily losses. In a profession where losing is so prevalent, it's appropriate to sit back and reflect on the notion of losing.

Good Losers are Winners

"Sometimes the best way to heal wounds of defeat is to, in the words of Gene Autrey, get 'back in the saddle again'."

Though my Irish heritage, Catholic upbringing, and Notre Dame undergraduate experience pain me to say so, Knute Rocken got it wrong when he said a good loser is a failure. To the contrary, show me a good and gracious loser and I'll show you a winner. Good losers are winners for a variety of reasons. For example, they're winners because they tend not to get mired in self-defeating attitudes. And the way I figure it, 10 percent of life is God-given talent, the other 100 percent is attitude (alas, my tribute to Yogi). Good losers are winners because they undoubtedly build better personal/business relationships. To prove my point, think about it, would you rather be with a good loser or a bad loser?

Becoming a Better Loser

It's hard to generalize what it takes to be a good loser. Every person is different. Some people are naturally better losers than others. But here are some things to think about:

Life's Not Fair--If you've practiced law for any length of time, you know to be true what my dad told me early on in life--"Life's not fair." Coming to grips with that fact enables us to better deal with those defeats and disappointments that just shouldn't be.

Get Some Fresh Air--My old boss always seemed to be cool as a cucumber in situations that would unravel most. Say for example, an overly litigious deposition or settlement negotiation with an unreasonable opponent. When I asked him how he did it, he explained that just about the time he was ready to explode, he'd excuse himself from the room, take a deep breath and calm himself down.

Let me suggest that if you are on the losing side of a matter and you're ready to explode--get some fresh air. Even in less-explosive situations, try counting "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi" before saying something you might later regret. After you've gotten some fresh air or used my counting trick, trust me, your better sense is likely to kick into gear.

Hail to the Victor--A jury acquitted one of two defendants after a trial in which I got into it with the defendant's lawyer. Though I'm not sure what allowed me to put aside my negative feelings for the lawyer, not to mention my honest belief that his client was guilty as sin, I made it a point to congratulate him and to wish his client the best. Not only did I come away from the moment feeling better about myself, the lawyer and I are better friends than ever. I believe our mutual friendship grew that day, in large part, because of my hail to the victor.

Pick Your Battles--After a loss, it's natural to want to continue arguing your point. Before you do, ask yourself: (1) will it benefit my client?, (2) will it matter six months from now? and (3) am I sure I'm right? In other words pick your battles wisely.

Back in the Saddle Again--I'm reminded of a Fort Worth story in which an associate was bruised by a court defeat. Without time to catch his breath, the associate ran back to the courthouse to handle another matter, a matter from which he walked away victorious. When he made it back to the firm, a Timex watch sat on his desk with a note from his partner that read: "Take's a licking, keeps on ticking." Sometimes the best way to heal wounds of defeat is to, in the words of Gene Autrey, get "back in the saddle again."

The Buck Stops with You--It's easy to pass the buck--to blame others for our defeats. Don't pass the buck. Consider accepting responsibility, even though it might not be your fault. The buck stops with you.

Reflect on Your Accomplishments--Few losses are devoid of silver linings. As Emerson pointed out, "For everything you have missed, you have gained something else . . ." Pat yourself on the back for your accomplishment and remember. "nothing tried, nothing gained."

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