For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?Mark 8:36
We all want to win. Our society thrives on it. Our egos feed on it. Often, our families depend on it. In this “dog-eat-dog” world, how far will you go to win? What are you willing to do to get what you want?
We admire the hard working victors – those who sacrifice time and energy to improve themselves and master their craft. Victories go to individuals and teams who are better prepared, better coached, and better able to channel their best when needed. The spoils for these winners can be immense: money, honor, power, and the glorious satisfaction of victory.
The Stories We Love
We love the stories of the entrepreneurs, explorers, and other adventurers who took great risks to win fortune and glory. The market rewards those who innovate and find creative ways to solve problems. Our collective-psyche revels in the big wins, big IPO’s, big net worths, and big profiles of those daring enough to beat the odds and succeed. We love our unicorns.
On the path to victory, hard work, innovation, self-sacrifice, timing, execution, and grit are all part of the honorable, and acceptable, winning narrative. We expect it to be difficult and admire those who virtuously overcome the challenges on their way to the top. However, the incentive to win is intense and also fosters behaviors that we generally find unacceptable: lying, cheating, stealing, and many things in-between that might increase our chances of winning.
Most understand that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong but we have a wondrously broad continuum in which we accept degrees of dishonor to attain our aims. We’ve created categories such as “white lies” to suggest that some lies are not as bad as others. We deconstruct the notion of stealing into lengthy paragraphs of legalese that parse it to the point of complete obfuscation and require some kind of judge to simply make a ruling.
We bury cheating in a complex array of unseen behaviors not easily detectable: using performance enhancing substances, spying or “intelligence gathering”, hacking (one that can fall under stealing as well), or any of a number of other behaviors that work to undermine an opponent and improve the chances of winning. The human capacity for innovation of this sort is mind-boggling and expansive.
All along, we measure it in degrees, thereby enabling us to rationalize and reconcile our behavior with our own compromised moral code. As much as we admire the victors of our society, at some level, we also expect that most who have attained great victories have compromised themselves in some way. How else could they overcome so much and prevail over so many in such great ways?
The cynical final sentence of the previous paragraph may or may not be true. I hope not but there is no conclusive way to make such a determination. We can however, look closely at our own life and behaviors. We can decide what we are willing to do, and not do, to win.
Losing Your Soul
What does it mean to lose your soul? It is to live in hell. I am a Catholic Christian but you don’t have to believe as I do to find hell. When you lose your soul in the pursuit of wealth, power, honor, and pleasure, you are moving toward hell. What is hell? A place where all of the pleasures and possessions of the world still bring no happiness. Sacrificing your integrity on the altar of ‘more’ only takes you closer to your own hell.
The end does not justify the means. To win at any cost only brings you closer to losing everything – to losing your soul.
Justifying the small is a gateway to rationalizing the big. Small lies. Minor defamations. Tiny thefts. All give way to bigger ones as we try to feed ourselves unjustly by seeking more and more advantage. Eventually, we believe we deserve it. We’ve paid our dues. It’s our turn. Eventually, we covet the win so much that we do whatever it takes to advantage ourselves and disadvantage the other; in the process blemishing that part of us that holds joy and radiance. This road is paved with small evils.
There is a right way to compete. There is an honorable path to success. We can achieve our goals with integrity through right efforts.
Thoughts from Dante
In his Inferno, Dante finds liars and cheats in the 8th and 9th circles of hell. Malice lands these poor souls at the bottom of the pit. Ill intention for their fellow man takes them to the last two circles of hell which are reserved for the worst of the worst. General liars end up in the putrid mud of the 8th circle and betrayers become frozen in the joyless ice of the 9th circle – the bottom of hell.
The truly frightening thing about these images is that you don’t have to believe in Heaven or Hell to find yourself in the hell Dante describes. We create it on earth when we lose our soul. We freeze ourselves in the joyless ice by furthering ourselves through lies and betrayal. How? Because here we find the worst torment: unhappy misery when we’ve won and have everything we want.
Real and Relevant
Why write about this? Because it is very real, very relevant, and we must be wary of the entrapments. I’ve recently seen firsthand the dangers of the “win at any cost” pathway as we’ve dealt with the malevolence of a competitor who will say, and apparently, do whatever they think is necessary to win. In some cases, winning isn’t enough as we’ve had to deal with direct threats to our organization as well. Why? Fear. Anger. Hate. I don’t know. I do know that we all want to win. I do know that we all aspire to something more. I also know that ill-won gains risk our very soul.
Consider your ambitions and the title of this post. You knew exactly what I meant when you read it. What price are you willing to pay? If your answer is ‘whatever it takes.’ I caution you to reconsider and align your thinking to the more honorable aspects of your person. If not, there may in fact come a time when you have all that you ever wanted…and the joyless misery that accompanies it when you’ve lost your soul along the way.