Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Photo credit:  Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Many years ago I had a friend who was unexceptional to a fault. He was average looking, wasn’t particularly athletic or smart nor did he have any trendy talents that made him stand out. Coming from humble beginnings, he couldn’t splurge his way to coolness. All things considered, he was an unremarkable young man by the markers of social standing in his university.

But despite his low rankings on popularity chart, my friend presented a paradox to guys who topped the university pecking order. The paradox was that my friend the ‘average Joe’ was far more successful with the ladies than any of these alpha males. They were bewildered that he would go out with the kind of women that they could only dream of dating.

While they would never deign to ask my friend the secret of his success, they would take every chance to mock him. Their mockery though was always tinged with envy and a grudging admiration. I once asked my friend if their jeering didn’t make him doubt himself. He grinned and replied: “See, I have nothing to lose, I don’t mind walking up to women and asking them out. Nine times out of ten, I am turned down. But the odds work in my favor. The tenth woman usually says yes. What these alpha fools don’t realize is that I’ve failed more times than they’ve tried. I am used to falling on my face. Every time a woman turns me down, I take it in my stride, tell myself that I’ve been here before and ask the next woman out.”

Fast-forward twenty years and I am amazed that my friend without knowing had stumbled onto transcendent wisdom that is the preserve of Judo masters. I was feeling rather smug after some randori (sparring) sessions where I had finally managed to avoid getting thrown by some very accomplished judoka. I was changing out of my gi when the head sensei called me aside for a chat. He looked at me somberly and said in a mix of Japanese and broken English: ‘You don’t need to win all the time.’

I looked at him nonplussed; thinking isn’t this why I subject myself to this punishment four times a week, to get better at Judo and to win. Seeing that I was confused, he elaborated: “A randori unlike a match is about learning the art. It is like life, if you enter it with a mindset to win, your game will be defensive and you’ll try only those moves you are comfortable with. You won’t experiment with the things you need to learn and that will help you grow. In fact you will be so focused on not falling on your backside that you will neither improve nor have fun. So don’t resist getting thrown; be playful, relax, try out different techniques, if they don’t work at first try again and again.”

What the head teacher said reminded me of my friend, the ladies man. They were both saying the same thing: If you want to get good at something, don’t try to win all the time. Because if you do, you’ll play it so safe that you won’t learn anything and worse still, you won’t even try, cause you’ll be scared of losing.

Without saying as much, they had both understood that resilience comes not from winning consistently, but from being open to losing. The way they saw their lives wasn’t like it was a high stakes match where they had to win at all costs. Instead for them life was a randori or a game where you were scored not on your victories but on whether you lived exuberantly.

The poet Jane Hirshfield sums it up best in her poem ‘ A Cedary Fragrance’

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.