Ask Me Another: Winning author Francesco Duina

Competitive mindset is a losing proposition, argues sociologist Francesco Duina

Americans are among the most competitive people in the world — but they’re far from the happiest. And that’s no coincidence, as Associate Professor of Sociology Francesco Duina explains in his new book, Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession (Princeton University Press). He talked with staff writer Doug Hubley.

What inspired the book?

Various things. Seeing Michael Jordan flashing his fingers, minutes after winning his fifth NBA title, indicating that he’d go after No. 6. The first lines in the movie Cars — “I eat losers for breakfast.” George Bush’s insistence on “winning the peace” in Iraq. The book challenges the assumption that most of us share: that winning is a worthy objective in and of itself, and we should avoid losing at all costs.

Instead, I argue that there is much more behind our desire to win besides simply wanting victory or avoiding loss. We’re looking for things like differentiation from the crowd, proof that we’re right, a sense of space, even looking for our place in the world.

This worldview sounds like an addiction.

Each big win leaves an emptiness that craves another win. We’re not cognizant of what we’re really after. Why do we care so much about Indiana winning the basketball game against Illinois? What’s in there for us? We need to discover what we’re really after as we compete, and it takes some introspection. We don’t have to justify it, it doesn’t have to be legitimate, but then we know what we want.

You do allow that the American obsession with winning has some upside.

The advantage is that, obviously, it motivates people a great deal, especially if you are not clear why you’re doing something. You will push yourself, get to know yourself differently, if you subject yourself to such stress and pressures.

The disadvantage is that, because we typically do this in a mental fog, we’re not truly at peace with what we’re doing. And that creates tensions within ourselves, and with the rest of the world.

Nature is full of winners and losers. What makes the obsession that you describe different?

The lion may or may not get the zebra, but if you ask the lion, “Did you win or lose?” that’s not how the lion thinks of it. The lion is after something and either gets it or not. But Americans’ construction of winning and losing is relatively novel in the way it is dominant in our society. “Winning the peace” is an absurd concept. How can you win the peace? And if you do think of it that way, it comes with certain baggage. It might not be the baggage you want.

Has this research turned up in your teaching?

I think Bates students are really thirsty for this kind of stuff — more than half are on one type of team or another. Most of them are very competitive, but not all, and some of them have reacted negatively against this stuff. We read a draft of this book last year, and some kids were like, “I don’t see myself in this. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And that’s good.

The book includes a sort of field guide to types of winners and losers.

For instance, you could win all the time. Or lose a lot, but win once, a big one — the Red Sox in 2004. They became big-time winners for that year, and all the losses were forgotten. There are patterns. You can actually be a loser all the time and still be considered a winner. And why? You fought very hard, and that’s a little bit of our mythology too — you know, the underdog who never wins anything but goes down fighting.

OK, but what does that mean? It means that we’re separating the outcomes, which were negative — “he never won anything” — from the mental processes within that person, which we tended to ignore in other cases when victory was realized. We say, you’re still a winner in our hearts.

You can also fall from grace quickly — Pete Rose, Al Gore. With Gore, it doesn’t even matter that he won the Nobel Prize. He had won all his life, but people see him as a loser because he should have won the election, because his opponent was perceived as weaker. That’s a type — the loser who throws away what he should have won.

According to one set of measures, Denmark is the happiest of industrialized countries. Yet the Danes, socially speaking, are governed by a set of principles that would strike Americans as soul-crushing — basically, sit down, shut up, and play along.

It’s called Jante’s Law, his 10 principles. They literally tell you, don’t stand out too much, don’t stick your neck out, don’t boast. It has some advantages and some disadvantages. If you are of average ambition, average intelligence, the Danish system is wonderful for you. If you have ambitions and are driven and you want to really succeed, the American system is better.

I think the Danish system is more civilized, but it does deprive people of a lot of freedom in the end. They say that they are the happiest, but I know that they’re not the happiest — but they are content. That’s the difference.

Are you a winner for having published this book?

Of course, you could construe it that way. I had to compete to get this book published, the press only publishes a certain number of books. But did I beat anyone? The right way to think about it is that I had a concept and I wanted to get something done, whatever that was, and I got it done. That’s a feeling of empowerment, a good feeling, and that’s where I want to leave it.

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