“I Feel as if I’ve Been Let in on a Dirty Little Secret: Winning Changes Nothing.”

“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”

–Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography

Agassi is referring to the “negativity bias,” the phenomenon that means that generally, bad is stronger than good. Alas.

Stay tuned; I’m going to write more about Agassi’s autobiography. It’s fascinating for many reasons–and I don’t even like tennis.

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Yeah, I hate that true thing, that it takes 40 ‘magic moment’ to equal one bad moment. It certainly seems to be true. However I DO think that you can cultivate a better ability to remember and honor those magic moments ‘enough.’ That’s what I try to do.

  • AJ

    Along the same lines as Penelope’s comment and the blog entry, you might find Carol Dweck’s Mindset idea relevant; it’s based on the idea that failure is an opportunity to learn rather than a permanent state and the idea that intelligence or ability is not an innate state–it can grow. Angela Duckworth’s Grit is along the same lines, but seems to rely on Mindset, so seems derivative but interesting. Bronson’s Top Dog also discusses winning and losing and competition—interesting stuff. Looking forward to the Habits book, and I’m adding Agassi’s book to my Kindle wish list. Thanks for the tip!

  • Natalie

    I play computer games and sometimes I will work towards a certain “achievement” for days or weeks, diligently doing whatever tasks the game requires, getting excited about getting close, then fulfilling all the requirements and yay, got achievement! Two seconds later…. now what?

  • GretchenS

    Great quote!
    I read Agassi’s book when it came out several years ago (my husband and I actually BOTH ended up getting it for each other that Christmas). We bought it more for “generation-identification” reasons than an interest in tennis. What I remember from the book is how much Agassi talked about not liking (hating) tennis. This was shocking to me, and it made me feel for him as the book went on. He seemed to have become hopelessly caught up in a whirlwind of a sport that he was good at, but not interested in – in expectations from his father and coaches that were not his own and which he could not identify with. This quote seems to be a symptom of all of that. So, what does this tell us about happiness? Well, I understand it to mean that we have to do that occupation/thing/activity/sport/lifestyle that makes us PERSONALLY happy or not even a Wimbledon win will make any difference at all in our happiness. The difficult thing is figuring out what that is and filtering through all of those “external” expectations.Still working on that bit myself…

    • Jamie

      I know he says he hates tennis but I don’t believe him. I think he has a complicated relationship with tennis. Tennis brought him his wife, thus his children, his fame, his money, and thus his resources to do incredible charity work. He can’t hate the source of so many blessings. He may not always like it though.

  • robin

    I also have heard that his autobiography transcends tennis and is worth reading, that it has some illuminating insights about life. I suppose that any worthwhile memoir does. I have heard this about the book Just Kids – by Patti Smith, also.

  • Claudia Tiefisher

    That’s so sad, that he didn’t even like tennis. I played tennis for many years and loved the sport. Many sports are a microcosm of life, and you can learn a lot from your self-talk, failures and successes. I used to be absolutely DEVASTATED when I lost a big match or tournament, berate myself and cry for long periods of time. It was so important to be identified as a “tennis player” and when I fell short of the image I’d created for myself I felt cheated and let down. It turned me into a not-nice person in those situations. More grown up now, I recently did the same thing with something else in my life and it took a hard fall to realize what I was doing. We clothe ourselves in personas that eventually reveal themselves for what they are, just masks, and then feel so empty when all of a sudden the mask falls off. What we have to learn is that no matter where we are on an arc of success/striving, if we are sincere and passionate, we will be better today than the day before and there will always be people better than us, and there will always be people not “as good” as us.

  • PolarSamovar

    I played the violin from the time I was seven. I noticed that if I set my heart on a goal, such as getting into the next-level youth orchestra, I’d be excited for an hour or two at achieving it, but by the second rehearsal in the new orchestra, it was just another rehearsal. I realized that the only good reason to play violin was because I enjoyed the act of practicing. That was really all it was about. And the more I practiced, the more I enjoyed it. A week-long orchestra camp during which I played for 8 hours a day was probably the high point of my love for violin.

    So many things in life are like that. I struggle with motivating myself, because I know in my gut that the normal rewards people strive for – money, promotions, meeting goals, “achievement,” aren’t all that. So they don’t work on me. The only thing that motivates me is love of an actual process, whether it’s at my job, or gardening, or home improvement, exercise, or even giving parties. And like nearly every other human, I resist starting activities, even if my head knows I’ll enjoy them if I get into it. I have pretty much decided that the concept of feeling motivated is bunk – if I have to feel motivated before I start something, it will never be a regular part of my life. The only activities I can trust my internal motivation to get me started on are eating and using the bathroom!

    I heard a podcast recently about procrastination that said that the way to beat it is to create a habit. We don’t procrastinate about, say, brushing our teeth, because we don’t *decide* to brush our teeth. We just do it before leaving the house and before going to bed.

    All of which is to say, maybe I should pre-order your book. 🙂

    • Gillian

      I completely relate to your thoughts on motivation, enjoying the process, resisting starting what you know you would enjoy. Very well stated!

  • PS

    Alas, this just demonstrates our work is never done! When we lose or we don’t succeed, there are no gains, we aren’t at a different starting place – we are immobile and it sometimes is easier to stay on track, and we learn from mistakes. The defined goal is out there, waiting. But upon success or losing, the goal is shifted, the work might be harder, more intense, even farther away, and how to get there is unknown. The pressure to stay on top becomes greater. The burden of winning, possibly?

  • I cannot relate at all. Failures give me a feeling of where my boundaries are (“My research is still not mature enough to be accepted in a top-quality journal in the X-field”) and are great teachers (of what I am able to do and what I am not, of how I react when I am not in an ideal situation and, thus, ultimately, of who I am) —and one has never enough good teachers.

    I share the feeling that the good is not as powerful as the bad, though, but in other fields, e.g., when it comes to beloved people telling me something nice or harsh.

  • Jeanne

    I wonder if this bias is changeable, or if we are hardwired to avoid pain more than to seek pleasure. After all, ultimately, avoiding pain may be more heavily linked to survival than even reproduction, since you can’t reproduce if you have not avoided danger and are now dead. This all seems so silly when the pain is losing a tennis match instead of failing to outrun a tiger, but the instinct is the same. Being social creatures who depend on the community for survival, being criticized (rejected) or losing in some way that seems important can seem as deadly to us as disease or predation. And we take it deadly seriously. I think to get over the negativity bias, we would have to completely alter our unrealistic ideas about what any form of winning is actually going to do for us, along with taking the importance and deadly seriousness away from forms of pain like criticism. These things are no longer do or die.

  • Stuart Gilding

    According to Edwin Locke’s Theory of Motivation, the main source of job motivation is the desire to attain goals. But not for me – I have many drives for motivation (helping others, serving God, duty, honour, a sense of inevitable calling), but personally I do not find that goals motivate me. Maybe I’m a little weird!!! Others get really excited by ticking off another arbitrary task done / level reached / “achievement” attained. But it’s a yawn-fest for me. for every goal reached there is another bit further to reach and a brand new goal to take its place. So if I’m not enjoying the journey, the process itself, then I’m not enjoying my life. I achieve goals. Just matters to everyone else but not to me (boss, spouse, peers, friends). The biggest sensation I feel is relief when I reach a goal.

  • Katherine

    I love this book! I also love Pete Sampras’ book, A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Another important thing about this interesting quotation is the deeper significance: “Remember, O Man, that thou art dust . . . ” None of us is getting out of here alive, all of us will have a peak moment of some sort which cannot be kept or held onto. To live as if the best (or worst) thing you have ever done, or has ever happened to you is somehow ‘the meaning of your life’ is a huge mistake.
    Wikipedia may take that view of you, but you yourself must have another, inner view. This can give you opportunities to keep being, living and growing–at least until your mind will no longer support that inner activity. At that point, the spirit of your essential personality will take over, and God help you if it is small and anxious or mean and grasping or arrogant and cruel.

    • Gillian

      Very wise words, Penelope!!

  • Kathy

    That negativity bias is so hard to fight! We’ve recently had some personal setbacks and challenges, and I’m finding it hard but necessary to my sanity to look for the positive, no matter how small it might seem. Instead of seeing our situation as a negative, I’m trying to flip it to a positive–so much of it is how I look at it, rather than what is actually happening.

  • Susanne R.

    Thats why being competitive doesn’t appeal to me.
    I just try to be the best I can be. Not trying to anyone, not having to wonder about what to do once I’ve won everything, and finally being able to help others to be the best they can be without me feeling uncomfortable by their success

  • Sadye

    Yep. I’ve worked as a proofreader for 6.5 years now, and missing something feels so, so, SO much worse than catching something truly important — this is still true even after two years of working for people who expect good work but *don’t* belittle you, publicly, for the inevitable slip-up.

  • ChrisD

    I’m just reading Margaret Heffernan’s a Better Way, about how competition is bad because it motivates the top few % but the majority then stop trying if they can’t win, and it destroys the co-operation and trust that are worth far more than a little bit of motivation for a tiny percentage.
    She quoted Aggassi in her chapter on sports and how the heavy competition makes sport as it is today bad for everyone. You focus so much on winning rather than enjoying the process, because only the very very very few top winners can earn a living (in track and field in the US of the top 10, 5 of them earned less than $30,000 a year). And of course because loosing is so awful.
    She said Agassi was unusual in having an autobiography worth reading as most athletes focus so much on their sport to the exclusion of all human life, that there is nothing to say in a biography.
    The two of you have convinced me to order this from the library now.