Never let them win. The first piece of advice I can remember my father ever giving me was “never let them win.” He never defined “them”, so my “them” was left up to interpretation. Them was any intangible and tangible adversary that could ever get in the way of my greatness. This desire to never let them win has been a powerful one throughout my life. It drove me to always put my best foot forward, to examine my weaknesses, and to always strive to do better. In essence, letting them win was a failure and I was to never do that. I had to conquer. However, this idea that they could never win began to fall apart once I realized they will win at some point. I was bound to fail at something.
From a young age, Nigerians especially, are encouraged to be the best and beat out the rest.
“Did the person who got a 100 have two heads?”
“It was hard, and so what?”
This desire to be at the top has manifested in Nigerians being one of the most educated immigrants and ethnic groups in the United States. These high standards have had a great payoff externally, but I have to wonder, what has been the internal cost? When all your worth is wrapped into achieving, what happens when you fail?
January always sets the scene for new goals and sometimes reminds us that we’re not quite where we want to be. This reminder for some can be helpful, but for others, detrimental. We’re constantly striving for perfection, even though we know the old adage that no one is perfect. Higher, higher, higher, lift your goals higher. There is nothing wrong with having high goals. In fact, research tells us that setting goals is adaptive and can be psychologically and emotionally healthy. However, how we view ourselves in relation to our standards is equally important. Do I think I’m inadequate because I’m not where I want to be? How we view our failure and current standing can be the difference between symptoms of depression and anxiety vs. hope and growth.
Achievement doesn’t have to be black or white. Yes or no. I succeeded or I failed. Lack of achievement doesn’t always lead to depression, however how we view not reaching our goals can. One of the traits that is often present in depression is black or white, all or nothing thinking. Black or white thinking says: “I failed at reaching my goal,” which many times leads to “I’m a failure.” When we see the our goals, our abilities, and ourselves as black or white we don’t allow for change, growth, or learning. We box ourselves in and allow what we didn’t achieve to define us.
Several years ago, Carol Dweck began to research the power of our beliefs and how changing even our simplest beliefs can positively impact our lives. Some of us have a “fixed mindset.” We believe our abilities, personalities, and intelligence, are the same since birth. You either have it or you don’t. Whereas in a “growth mindset” you believe abilities can be changed through learning and effort. People with a fixed mindset often think in black or white. Many times someone with this mindset searches for approval by trying to avoid failure at all costs. Failure is the end. However, growth mindsets allow for just that, growth. Failures become experiences instead of shortcomings, encouragement instead of embarrassment, and opportunity instead of loss. In Carol’s own words “[our mindsets] change the definition, significance, and impact of failure. . . they change the deepest meaning of effort.”
People who get obsessed with trying to avoid mistakes and failing never feel as though their efforts are good enough. This lifestyle leaves no room for contentment. Know that contentment does not equal complacency. Contentment says, “who I am, right now, is enough. I can desire to grow and change and become better, but who I am right now is still worthy.” If you do not think who you are is enough right now, no amount of change, growth, or goal setting will fill up your emptiness. We can choose to celebrate our achievements alongside our failures. Though practice doesn’t make perfect, it can make progression. That alone should be celebrated. Determining to always win is a losing battle, so instead I’ve chosen life.
Uche Ukuku, Ph.D
Uche is currently a postdoctoral psychology fellow working with children. When she takes off her counselor cape, Uche is a die-hard college football fan (Go Dawgs), lover of all things Nigerian (especially goat meat and dancing), writer, unpaid comedian, crafter, but most importantly a daughter, sister, and friend.