Each week in anticipation of and during Naval Academy football games I hear local commercials about how Midshipmen ‘Expect to Win’ on and off the field. At my son’s last swimming event, he told me that he expected to win all but one of his races. In a recent conversation with a young lady who was pursuing her college degree, she told me how she expected to get all As and graduate with a 4.0. My initial response to each was, “I love the confidence.” Over the years, I have been on teams where we expected to win each game, participated in events where I had zero expectation of winning and instead was committed to finishing, and I’ve taken school courses where I hoped for and worked hard for a ‘C’. Our lives are filled with expectations of ourselves and others, but how much should we expect, if anything?

The Naval Academy is a wonderful institution and I am most certainly proud to be an alum. The brigade is filled with high-achieving people from all walks of life, each of whom graduates with a strong appreciation for the value of honor, teamwork, persistence, loyalty, and discipline. We all show up having exceeded our own expectations in our young life (acceptance into the school is humbling in and of itself), but becoming a part of a much bigger pool, our expectations for further achievement are deserving of re-evaluation…the pool is deeper and our fellow fish are bigger, faster, stronger. I rarely expected to win, but I always expected to compete, to be pushed by my teammates, and to reach new personal heights. So, I chuckle each time I hear the public acclamation that midshipmen ‘expect to win’ both on and off the field. We ought to be confident enough to know we have a chance of winning, self-aware to the point that we know what it will take to win, and humble enough to acknowledge that the arrogance that comes with expecting to be the best is one of the quickest ways to turn cheers into jeers.

My son is developing into a competitive swimmer. In a year and a half, he has gone from defining success as finishing all events without disqualification to achieving goals he never thought possible (he was the fastest swimmer in his age group at his last big meet, and as he predicted did win 7 out of 8 races). When he gets in the pool to swim anything except breaststroke, he likes his chances of winning. And, though he would love to define winning as being the fastest in the pool on that given day, he is more focused on achieving a new best time. When both happen, he is extremely pleased. When only one occurs, it’s the best time that trumps his placement within the pack.

In school, I was a good student. I did my homework, studied for tests, and did what was expected of me. Up through high school, I got all As and Bs without much effort. Did I learn things? That’s another post, but suffice it to say that I passed the tests before I purged the information and now lean on Google to remember most of the things I once knew, albeit temporarily. The measure of learning is thought to be the grade, but we know how flawed that is. When the young lady I mentioned earlier told me she expected to graduate with a 4.0, I believe her intent was to communicate she is working very hard and/or she is very smart. In my opinion, she is focused on the wrong metric (as so many are when it comes to school), and she might want to take different courses: courses where she might learn new things and be truly stretched in the process, courses where she might not earn an ‘A’.

I like to win, but I rarely “expect” to win. Over the years, I have learned far more when I didn’t win. I won’t pretend that losing feels good in the least or that I enjoy falling short, but we learn and grow the most when the result is less than optimal. Though society as a whole has conditioned us to focus on the easily measured result that informs a win/loss determination, it’s not what truly matters. In the world of personal growth and true achievement, it’s the result that appears unsatisfactory to the observers that will prove to be most meaningful to the participants over time.

I don’t think any of us should “expect” to win. We might intend to win and do everything in our power to prepare to win, but none of us can control the result. If we do believe that it is right to have an expectation of winning, we ought to develop situationally tailored definitions of ‘winning’, as it need not be limited to the highest score, the fastest time, or the best grades. We sometimes win by losing; we often win by working really hard to learn a new subject that results in a ‘C’; we always win when we achieve a personal best even if we come in last place.

  • How important is winning to you?
  • Have you learned more in life by winning or falling short?
  • What do you expect in life?