Losing the election by ten votes or by a million--which is worse?
"Missed it by that much," is a way to amplify how we feel when we don't succeed. So, when we miss the bus by just a few seconds, or finish a math proof just behind the competition--we can beat ourselves up about this for years.
Much rarer, it seems, is the opposite. It's hard to find people still congratulating themselves after winning an election by just a few votes or making a plane by a step or two. Nice that it happened, but we ask what's next, where's the next crisis?
We have a name for someone who expects the worst in the future. Pessimism is a choice. But we don't seem to have a name for someone who describes the past with the same negative cast.
It's a dangerous trap, the regular reminders of how we've failed, but how close we've come to winning. It rarely leads us to prepare more, to be more adroit or dedicated. Instead, it's a form of hiding, a way to insulate ourselves from the next, apparently inevitable failure.
The universe is not laughing at us. It doesn't even know we exist.
Go ahead and celebrate the wins, then get back to work. Same for mourning the losses. All we can do is go forward.
Me? I am a terrible candidate. I'm John Quincy Adams. A radiator would be a warmer candidate than me. Yet I spent decades chasing the brass ring, trying for the seemingly effortless popularity my dad enjoyed. He was his high school's class president, so I would be mine.
Junior high and high school, filing day came, I was there. Never won. Came the big prize- student body president, Shelby Senior High School- I even dragooned some friends into doing polling for me. Charitably they turned in results showing I had a shot.
Wrong. I lost so badly the principal refused to release the results. He and my dad were in Rotary together. The principal was a big cheerleader of mine, until I came out.
As it turns out, the win meant a lot to the winner, a football star who never gave me the time of day, but who, when I arrived at our 20-year reunion, parted the crowd like the Red Sea to greet me and relive our epic contest. In retrospect, I'd been a successful loser, at least, and I was glad to be able to supply part of a narrative that clearly meant more to him than it had to me.
So I recalibrated for college. I ran for student government three times, and lost all three. Then I ran for the student senate, and my dorm elected me. A year later, they defeated me.
Now I'd learned some things. I was Jimmy Carter, and St. Andrews University was my Iowa caucus. I shook every hand and went to every event and remembered every birthday, and when I ran for student body president, I won the three-way contest by ten votes. It was that damned runoff that pipped me at the post, loser by three.
Losing big, I decided, was better. You don't spend time wondering how that 13-vote swing happened.
After college, I learned, nobody much cares about that stuff. I was drafted to be president of the Middle Common Room- the graduate students association- at Mansfield College, Oxford, and learned how to hang wallpaper. It's a useful skill: you never know, til you try, how many points of contact each sheet have to connect at in a William Morris lotus design. I left a commons room restored to its Victorian glamour as my electoral legacy.
In law school, everyone else was aiming for a clerkship with a federal judge, so winning student body president there was a walk. And I got some useful things done, as well as a graduation prank campaign in which I nearly sold my virulently antiwar, but short on historical memory classmates, on inviting Dean Rusk to be our graduation speaker. For a bunch of careerists in waiting, a former secretary of state was, almost, a best-seller; the dean, rendering such referenda nugatory- it's what deans and presidents do- invited a classmate of his who was a 9th Circuit judge.
Two presidencies in a row: my dad shrugged. Meh.
I spent the 1980s and 90s working on other people's real world campaigns. That, I was good at. I had everything analytical, just no retail.
In 1998, on a lark, I ran for the governing body of my state bar association. My opponent was a black law school classmate . It was one of those hard, modern election choices- first black guy, or first gay guy? I scraped through, pretty thoroughly covered in my opponent's mud. People had decided it was his turn, and I had taken it away from him.
My dad shrugged again. My mother was horrified. This was public success, the kind that would lead strangers to ransack public records to learn what kind of woman would have unleashed a gay son on a bar association's leadership.
I had a good run. The bar's rules of conduct were changed to ban discrimination based one sexual orientation, and three new seats on the board of governors came into being to make it more than the last bastion of old white guys.
I had a sort of vindication at St Andrews at the same time, being asked to be alumni association president. I raised a lot of money, and gave away some awards, and lied for my mom when she found she couldn't bear being in the same room with me, my partner, her 45-year reunion classmates, and a thousand other alumni. She was her class reunion chair, and I ruined it for her.
And my one run for public office was a success: I was elected a precinct officer at the bottom of a ballot whose top listed candidates for governor and Congress.
My dad: meh.
My term on the board of governors ended with me on a roll. The bar's presidency seemed in reach. I would have been the first of my tribe, a decade after Oregon broke that barrier.
This was running for pope, college of cardinals electioneering: a small body, everyone with an agenda. I made the rounds with my colleagues. My opponent was a career bar leader who'd come up the rungs in the traditional way. He really needed that win to cap his career.
I decided not to run. My opponent was elected by acclamation. He told me later he was sure I'd have beaten him. I reassured him the win was all his own. I knew I was going to lose by two votes. Both were pretty candid about why.
The math of that electorate gave me one more shot a year later. I did some soundings. I would probably lose by three. So I walked away. My dad was dead. There was no one to impress.
It took thirteen more years for my bar association to elect a gay president. It was a man I'd hired out of law school. As things turned out I was Falstaff to his Prince Hal, but the battle was, finally won, and I lived to see it. I hope Seth Godin would approve.