You Can’t Always Separate Wins From Losses


When I go to the gym, the difference between a good day and a bad day can be huge.  On a bad day you can’t push yourself, you won’t enjoy the exercise and you don’t make any improvements.  But, I’ve found, you need those bad days in order to have the great days.  If you try to avoid all the bad days, you end up avoiding the great ones as well.

This doesn’t just happen at the gym.  I need to write bad articles in order to write great ones.  I’ll end up reading boring books, trying to find fascinating ones.  I’ll need to be disliked by a few people in order to make great friends with others.

Separating Wins From Losses

It’s human nature to separate the good from the bad.  You want to have those great days at the gym, and you want to avoid the days that feel lousy.  You want to start the winning projects, but you don’t want to waste six months.  You want to make friends, but you don’t want to be unpopular with some people.

Sometimes you can’t separate the wins from the losses.  The two are so entangled, that you either get both, or nothing.

I write about five articles a week for this website and others.  After writing nearly 600 posts, many people have commented on how much I seem to be able to write.  My secret (if you want to call it a secret) is that I don’t try to separate the wins from the losses.  I commit to writing a certain amount each week.  Sometimes that means I’ll write lousy articles one week, but other times I’ll write something that gets a lot of attention.

When I started writing, I tried to separate the wins from losses.  I figured, if I could just identify the right combination of headlines, topics and ideas that were winners, I could produce only hits.  But this is impossible.  The same things that made one post fail, might make another post interesting.  Wins and losses are all tangled together.

Two Strategies: Win % and Win Totals

There are two ways of evaluating yourself.  One is by your percentage of wins.  You count up the total successes and divide it by the total attempts.  The closer you can be to perfect the better.

The other strategy is to only count the total wins.  Just add up the total wins and ignore the amount of attempts.

I think a lot of people try to use the first method.  They are striving for 100% accuracy, when they ignore the total amount of wins.  I’d rather be the guy that had a 20% success rate, but earned $100,000 than the guy who had a 95% success rate, but only earned $10,000.  Going for the first strategy may stop losses, but it can stop even bigger wins.

Your Going to Have a Bad Day

Sometimes you just know you’re not going to perform at your best.  I’ve gone to social events where I feel drained and introverted.  I’d rather go to sleep or watch a movie by myself, than carry on a conversation.  I’m sure even the most extroverted readers can relate to this feeling.

But having the occasional lousy event is necessary for having the great ones.  I’d miss out on a lot, if I avoided every gathering that I didn’t have 100% confidence in.  Some of my favorite times have been completely unanticipated.

If you focus on your win percentage, instead of the total score, you’ll beat yourself up for those bad days.  Days when you could have performed better, but you didn’t.  Gym days where you barely show up.  Projects where you put in only a half-effort.

Instead, I try to see those bad days as paving the way for great ones.  Your losses are the price you pay for taking the gamble.  Just because the outcome wasn’t in your favor today, doesn’t mean you made a bad decision to play.  Your losses are when you need to encourage yourself the most, because without them, you can’t get the bigger rewards.

When you’re faced with a situation where you can’t untangle the wins and losses, focus on output.  Your goal should be to make as many attempts as possible, instead of worrying about what your success ratio is.  Your failures won’t make a resume anyways, and people will only count the total score.

  • Anand Dhillon

    Good post Scott. I`d also like to add that we often learn just as much from the losses as we do from the wins. A bad day in the gym can teach you that you are overtraining, for example, and need to reduce your frequency or take a week off.

  • Kali

    Great post, Scott. I liked your wording “Just add up the total wins and ignore the amount of attempts” because implementing this attitude avoids the plague of conditional acceptance and makes room for letting go.

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  • Shanel Yang

    Very well done! If your “not so great” help you turn out stuff as top quality as this, I can certainly see the benefit of them. I’m inspired to start letting go even what remains of the old absolute perfectionism that used to plague me. Sometimes I wonder how much I can let go and still turn out any quality product at all, but I’m going to trust your advice and my instincts on this, too. Thanks for the great insights!

  • Chris

    I found a similar philosophy helped me get over my inexperience and shyness with women. I hope you’re fine with me going down this road in your comments thread!

    The obvious thing is to relate it to how meeting women is a numbers game and you can’t let your screw ups get you down, etc etc etc

    How I thought of it more though is say you want to do something, like work up the courage to ask a girl out, or go up and talk to someone at a bar, and have tried ten times so far. You blew the first nine and finally succeed on the tenth.

    It’s easy to be full of regret and berate yourself for the all times you screwed up, but in hindsight you needed those failures to get that final success.

    In trying to reach your goal, it seems like a situation where you either did it or you didn’t, but it may have been the first time you totally blew it and got 0% of the way their. On the second you still screwed up overall, but were 10% of the way. On the 9th time you were 90% of the way. As bad as those missteps were at the time, they were helping you pave the way for eventually getting it right. If you avoided them, you never would have built up your competency behind the scenes.

  • Sara

    I’ll be honest, I’m torn on this. I agree in theory, but in practice, it’s pretty hard to accept doing less than your best. But there are lots of areas in life that are pure numbers games, where this strategy will win every time.

    I think you’ve got a great point in that we don’t have to let ourselves be defined by our failures, or even our just “eh” performances. We don’t have to let them hold us back from doing awesome things.

  • Scott Young


    No it isn’t easy, and there will be a tendency to judge your win %, even if you try not to. But if you have the right attitude, I think you can lower it, to a degree.


  • Diego

    I needed this reminder. Thank you.

  • graham

    Hey Scott, for anyone keeping score, this is a solid post! But who’s counting? 🙂

    Seriously, great one… It can be so easy to forget that it’s really just a numbers game… If you want to score more, you probably just need to take more shots. Perfectionism really can be such a self-limiting tendency. Many business mantras stress “failing fast” and “failing often” as keys to eventual success. I’ve also heard it said, if you’re not failing, you’re probably not really trying yet!

    Anyway, cliches aside here, you’ve provided a great reminder of what the game’s really about. Good job.