The Biggest Losers Win Big

Images-3You can’t learn to be a big winner without losing first.  We would all love to achieve success on the first go, but the reality is failure often lays the requisite groundwork for success.  As I discussed in my earlier post “Fail to Succeed,” failing hardens our resolve, gives us experience, and lights the way to achieving our goal.

In his almost manic Oscar acceptance speech for winning Best Picture for “Argo,” Ben Affleck illustrated this mainstay mantra in Silicon Valley. After a string of bad films, the reinvented and rebooted Affleck said, voice trembling with emotion: “It doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life; that's going to happen. All that matters is you've got to get up."

This maxim is best exemplified in politics.  There’s no clearer referendum on success and failure than an election by popular vote.  Throughout history, political losers have rose to become successful leaders.  In fact, every elected U.S. President since Kennedy has lost a major election on their way to the top:


  • Lyndon Johnson – Lost his first battle for the U.S. Senate in 1941 
  • Richard Nixon – Lost his first race for the Presidency against Kennedy in 1960
  • Jimmy Carter – Ran for governor of Georgia in 1966 and lost
  • Ronald Reagan – Failed to win the Republican Presidential nomination in 1976 when he took on a sitting President Ford 
  • George H. W. Bush – Lost his race for Congress in 1964 and then lost his Senate seat in 1970
  • George W. Bush – Failed in his bid for congress in 1978 
  • Barak Obama – Took on a popular sitting congressman, Bobby Rush, in 2000        and got trounced in the Democratic primary

Bill Clinton lost his first reelection bid for Arkansas governor.  That loss was devastating for him.  But he quickly learned from his failure and adopted a new message, which put him back in the governor’s mansion two years later. He famously said that he “learned from defeat that you can't lead without listening.” Recognizing
the value of failure allowed him to take a big risk in 1992 and run against a very
popular president. His main Democrat rivals (Mario Cuomo and Dick Gephardt)
didn’t jump into the race because they were too afraid of losing. Without
Clinton’s pivotal failure earlier in his career, the 1990s could have been a
very different decade.                    


Beyond gaining experience, running a failed campaign can build up essential

and recognition for future elections.  John McCain lost his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000, but he gained the national recognition to win the nomination in 2008.  Mitt Romney followed the same blueprint, losing to McCain that year but winning the nomination in 2012.  Romney invested a lot of time in building a strong ground game during his first run, cultivating support in key states and setting up offices around the country.  When he ran the second time, he was able to re-enlist those same resources.  Building upon an already strong foundation, he handily won the nomination. 

While I can’t predict who our next president will be, I can predict that he or she will have lost a significant election in the past.  Losing is at the heart of winning big.




6 thoughts on “The Biggest Losers Win Big

  1. Michael Everschmidt

    President Obama is a great example of this. Most people who thought they had a shot at being President would have never had taken on their party’s establishment. They would wait their turn.
    Obama was incredibly bold and ambitious and he took on the establishment and went after Hilary Clinton. It was a bold move that obviously paid off.
    The type of person who would do this is one that is not afraid of losing. Seeing his race against Bobby Rush (where he got crushed) early in his career shows the profile of a man who is willing to take chances (and take on his own party).

  2. Jennifer Pacadillo

    Another good article Auren.
    One person you can easily say this about is Steve Jobs. Jobs got fired from Apple. My opinion is that he would have never been able to make the iPhone had he not had the experience of a very big loss. And, of course, he started life with the loss of his biological parents.

  3. Strictly Anonymous

    This is very timely given the government shutdown. It is interesting the main people in this drama (President Obama, Senator Ted Cruz, etc.) seem to be people willing to lose and have a history of losing. They seem to be risk takers who have taken on their respective party’s establishment. And they seem to engender loyalty from their party (and intense hatred from the other side) because of their strong beliefs and rebel tactics.
    It will be very interesting to see how this current drama plays out.

  4. Anand Manikutty

    Interesting as a starting point for analysis, but on the whole, I disagree with the thesis of the argument.
    What is happening is this- everybody takes calculated risks. It is just that the calculations surrounding the risk, i.e., the decision making process is different for different people. It is better to say that if you are rich and privileged, then you should be taking a different set of risks than if you are not. You are better off taking huge risks then. Everyone should take calculated risks, but if you are rich and privileged, the type of risks you should take ought to be qualitatively different.
    Think about it- what is losing? Losing for somebody who is part of the elite (e.g. Mitt Romney) means one thing. Losing for the general population is quite another.
    (a) If you are not wealthy and you lose your job, you may not be able to afford your mortgage and you lose your house. Big risk. May not be worth taking.
    (b) If you are extremely wealthy or extremely well connected, the equation is different. You are better off betting big. That is exactly what George W. Bush did. That is also what Mitt Romney did. Note that for neither of them was the election to be President that big a deal. They would not have been homeless if they had lost.
    Now, how should one take calculated risks? Here, ability itself may not be everything. What matter is whether you have the right ‘resources’. For George W. Bush, it was his father’s political machine. For Mitt Romney, it was the political machine he built and the business network he accumulated, in significant part because his father was so rich and influential.
    I have been rich and I have been poor. Rich is better – especially if you want to have more options to work with.

  5. Jamie Roche

    So true. The lesson seems always to be two part: humility and tenacity. Humility in the “I need others, I need to listen, I need more than my particular genius/bravado, I need luck and timing and …
    Tenacity, really fortitude is so critical. But in a willingness, even a pathological commitment to succeed even when you are knocked down. Not all people who fail eventually succeed and many who succeed never do so again. It it’s the combination of commitment to success and a hard-earned understanding of the variables outside of personal bravery and assets that seem to matter.

  6. Jared G

    Nice piece Auren. I actually keep an alternate resume that I keep for posterity, to keep me grounded, and to remind me of many times when I’ve failed and have persevered to succeed later. It is what I call my resume of failures. The earlier failures seem pretty trivial today — running for President of my Jewish youth group as a freshman in high school and losing that position and then running for VP and six other positions and losing them all in a row — and then not quitting but taking an appointed position, working hard, and then beating the guy who had beaten me for Vice President the following semester. They get a little more important over time, e.g., being rejected for my first choice university, Cornell, and going to Michigan, persevering, and transferring as a sophomore), and they get more substantially more important later on — representing a political prisoner in The Gambia who was disappeared by security forces only to learn a year later he died in prison. My first (and still only) ultimate defeat on a political prisoner case — and having to reflect on what I learned and whether there was anything I did differently. Like this last case illustrates, failure doesn’t actually always lead to success, but it often does.
    I’ve found this to be a very useful tool for my life. And I suspect one day my kids will probably get more inspiration from my resume of failures than those more publicly known successes.
    To me, perseverance is everything — and what really distinguishes the good from the great.


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