Should we all be ‘prepared losers?’

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

One of my family’s favorite actors was Don Knotts, whose antics as Barney Fife helped make a success of the 1960s television series, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

In 1961, Knotts was awarded the first of what would become five consecutive Emmys. Standing before the microphone with that first Emmy in hand, he said, “I don’t know what to say about winning this. All my life I’ve been a prepared loser.”

At first glance, his statement seems to be an indictment of his parents, his childhood or his life experiences. However, he summed up what many people feel about themselves. Some of us feel we are “prepared losers.” Most of our lives we are told what we can’t do.

Far too often parents program their children with, “Johnny can’t do this; Jane is not good at that.” Then, some teachers, coaches, and mentors pick up where parents left off, focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths.

Most of us know more about our negatives than we do about our positives. Perhaps it is easier to spot obvious flaws than flashes of perfection.

Yet, we know praise and positive re-enforcement are generally more effective than rebuke and criticism. In recent years, parents have been strongly encouraged to balance feedback to their children, by “catching them being good” instead of only correcting errors. We were coached to foster high self-esteem and to help our children feel good about themselves.

We may have overachieved.

Some think this generation has become the “me” generation where everyone gets a trophy regardless of performance — and participation is confused with excellence. Efforts to increase self-esteem have morphed into a surge of self-importance where hard work and talent are discounted.

We may need to face some facts.

We may need to accept that, indeed, “Johnny can’t do this,” and “Jane may not be good at that.” The important lesson to both learn and teach is that it is OK — it doesn’t matter. We can’t be good at everything or win at everything.

Granted, we don’t need to criticize every part of our children’s character or point out each negative tendency until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it may be worthwhile to help them create realistic expectations.

“Move to your strengths,” my father often counseled me.

Our challenge is not to offer global praise and blind encouragement. With effort, we can prepare our children to move to their strengths, and more importantly, teach them how to discover what they are.

Being a “prepared loser” may be part of the process. Often we learn the most about ourselves when we do not succeed. We may discover a limit, yet we can prevent it from being limiting by learning from it and moving in another direction.

Some of life’s greatest lessons are in loss. When we lose, we often discover more about who we are and what is important to us than when we win.

As a parent, I hope I have prepared my children to lose just as I have prepared them to win.

Because life has an abundance of both.